Every year millions of Catholics around the world celebrate his feast day on the 14th of February, showing signs of affection towards their loved ones. However, one of the Church’s most beloved saints is also shrouded in mystery. Why is Saint Valentine the patron saint of love?
Three different Saint Valentine’s are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of the 14th of February, leading to different accounts and traditions that explain how he was ascribed the patronage of love.
One hagiographical account tells the story of a Valentinus, Bishop of Terni. In Rome, he ministered to the Christians persecuted under Roman rule and was arrested for his evangelization efforts. Sent to the prefect of Rome, Emperor Claudius II, Valentine tried to get the emperor to embrace the Faith, and was condemned to death for it.
In jail awaiting his execution, his jailer Asterius asked the saint known to heal people if he could cure his daughter’s blindness. Placing his hands on jailer’s daughter, she was miraculously cured and Valentine would go on to form a deep friendship with her. Just before his execution he asked for a pen and paper, and wrote one last letter to Asterius’ daughter signed with the now notorious words: “from your Valentine.”
Another pious hagiographical account tells the story of a Valentinus martyred during the reign of Claudius II as a Roman priest. Saint Valentine was arrested and imprisoned after he was caught marrying Christian couples, aiding them during the period of persecution in Rome.
Claudius took a liking to his new prisoner, but when Saint Valentine attempted to convert the Emperor he condemned him to death. He was beaten with clubs and stones, and when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate at the People’s Square in Rome.
Another hagiographical account tells a similar story of a Saint Valentine marrying couples: he would secretly perform marriages for Christian couples so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. Emperor Claudius II was inconvenienced by such an act during a time when soldiers were sparse. In order “to remind these men of their vows and God’s love, Saint Valentine is said to have cut hearts from parchment” and give them to soldiers and persecuted Christians – the origin of the widespread use of hearts on Saint Valentine’s day.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Saint Valentine’s day became associated with love because of the held belief that half way through the second month of the year, February 14th, the birds began to pair. The poem Parlement of Foules by poet Geoffrey Chaucer, the same author of the Canterbury Tales, contains the earliest reference to Saint Valentine’s day as one of love.
“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”
The oldest surviving Valentine’s love letter is found in the Paston Letters, written by Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston in February 1477, addressing her husband-to-be as her “right well-beloved valentine” – the first reference to the custom of couples calling each other their Valentines.
“And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine’s Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion.”