- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2000

In the year 270, the Roman Emperor Claudius the Goth executed Valentine, a soldier turned bishop, on Feb. 14. With that act, Claudius set in motion one of the most surefire connections in history.

According to legend, Valentine's jailer approached him while he awaited execution. The jailer wanted his blind daughter, Julia, to be taught by the famous Christian. In teaching her, Valentine introduced Julia to faith in God. As the legend goes, Julia's awakened belief and Valentine's prayer became so intense that the cell was filled by a brilliant light and Julia cried out, "Valentine, I can see, I can see!"

One the eve of his death, Valentine wrote a last note to Julia urging her to stay close to God, which he signed, "from your Valentine."

To this day, red is worn at St. Valentine's Day masses because he spilled his blood for Christ. Yet, as blood and passion fused in his story, he became associated with romantic, and sometimes anonymous, love. The most marketable saint ever, Valentine today comes in the material form of red roses, chocolates, greeting cards, and lots of wistful, lovelorn messages.

Over the centuries, the unfolding of St. Valentine lore has been relentless. Observers of nature have noted that by his feast day, the birds had chosen their mates. Even Chaucer has such references in his poems: "The Parliament of Fowls," "The Canterbury Tales," and "The Legend of Good Women." In that last poem, the birds and fowl gathered to celebrate their nuptials and, in unison, sang:

Blessed be Seynt Valentyne,

For on his day I ches yow to be myn,

Withouten repentying, myn herte swete.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, French ballads referred to the custom of getting engaged on St. Valentine's Day. By the 16th century, people sent anonymous cards to lovers. With time, the saint's bones came into the possession of a French family. Two years before the Franco-Prussian war was a difficult time for French believers. So in 1868, fearing for St. Valentine's relics, the family sent them to Scotland, as a gift to the newly built St. Francis Church that served the emigrant Irish of Glasgow.

When St. Francis was closed, St. Valentine's bones were moved to Blessed John Duns Scotus Church, where they gathered dust until last year. On St. Valentine's Day 1999 that changed when his remains were enshrined at Glasgow's new Greyfriars Centre. After 1,700 years, he found the peace and respect that he deserves.

The Rev. Brian McGrath, pastor of the new Duns Scotus Church, said with some bemusement, last year, "The whole thing of relics is not something we play up a lot. But people go in for these things now. If you have something belonging to Elvis Presley or a footballer's boot, people are very fond of them." I suppose the idea of relics has come back in a different way.

If relics are back in vogue, can St. Valentine be rescued from popular culture and modern mass marketing? Reclaiming a saint from folklore is more difficult than becoming a saint. What message would Valentine have for those who seek his intercession about affairs of the heart?

In our culture today, the marital choice is often reduced to a matter of physical attraction. Surely attraction is necessary, but it is not the complete picture. Many couples live together outside of marriage to see if a permanent commitment might work. These approaches are dead ends for marriage and for society.

In a recent book, "When Strangers Marry," Albert McDonnell concludes that many people do not know whom they are marrying and that they have never communicated at a serious level. Courtship often takes place in bars and clubs. Hence the marriage is in trouble almost before it begins because sexual intimacy replaces real intimacy. The two are not the same, but one can masquerade for the other. When the masquerade is over, two strangers often confront one another.

Even in the days of the Hebrew testament, young lovers prayed for divine guidance in making life's most serious decision the choice of a partner for married life. Now that St. Valentine has a final resting place, he should be reclaimed and given a chance to offer the kind of divine guidance that lovers need. His miracle for Julia was the restoration of her physical sight. For our society, he can help young lovers appreciate that intimacy takes time and patience.

Valentine, patron saint of romance, has been incarnate too long in chocolate and roses. From his new home in Glasgow, may his original prayerful intercession shine anew.

Fr. Bartley MacPhidn is president of Stonehill College, Easton, Mass.

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