Distinguishing fact from fiction in the case of St. Valentine is not easy, as there were at least 3 saints of the name, all of whom died as martyrs. The first Valentine was a Roman priest martyred under the Emperor Claudius II in 269 or 270 AD, the second was a Bishop of Terni killed in the same century, and little is known of the third who died in Africa.
St Valentine’s Feast Day falls on 14 February, on which day lovers have customarily exchanged cards and other tokens of affection. It is not clear why Valentine should have been chosen as the patron saint of lovers, but it has been suggested that there may be a connection with the pagan Roman Festival of Lupercalia. During this Festival, which took place in the middle of February, young men and girls chose one another as partners. Legend, no doubt embellished if not entirely fictional, has it that the Roman Valentine resisted an edict of the Emperor forbidding the marriage of young men bound for military service, for which offence he was put to death.
Valentine’s Feast is also linked with the belief that birds are supposed to pair on 14 February, which legend provided the inspiration for Chaucer’s ‘Parliament of Fowls’. The crocus, which starts to bloom in February, is called St Valentine’s Flower. The earliest Valentine letter is found in the fifteenth-century collection of Paston Letters. The general custom of sending tokens on Valentine’s Day developed during the nineteenth century, and in the present century has spread to the east, where it appears to be particularly popular in Japan. The exchange of Valentine cards, flowers, sweets and other gifts has thus become a multi-million dollar international industry. It is estimated that in excess of one billion Valentine cards are sent each year in the United States of America alone.It may not be widely known outside Ireland that the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street in Dublin City claims to hold the remains of St Valentine. The Carmelites first arrived in Ireland in 1271, and today there is a community of 17 in the Monastery attached to Whitefriar Street Church. The story of how the remains of St Valentine came to rest in Whitefriar Street is interesting, and involves a famous nineteenth-century Carmelite attached to the Church, Fr John Spratt. Fr Spratt visited Rome in 1835, and apparently largely on the strength of his powers as a preacher, Pope Gregory XVI decided to make his Church a gift of St Valentine’s body, then believed to be in the Cemetery of St Hippolitus in Rome. The remains of Valentine were duly transferred to Whitefriar Street Church in 1836, and since that date have been venerated there, especially around the time of the Saint’s Feast Day.
As is the case with some other famous saints, there are rival claimants for the honour of possessing the body of St Valentine, and in view of past scandals concerning the manufacture and sale of relics, authenticating them is notoriously difficult. Thus some accounts claim that the remains of St Valentine were in fact buried in the Church of St Praxedes in Rome. It is stated that Valentine of Terni is buried in that town, and an effigy of him in bishop’s dress may be viewed there. In 1999 there was widespread newspaper and television coverage of the claim that St Francis’s Church in Glasgow holds the ‘real’ relics of St Valentine. In response to the implication that Whitefriar Street possesses only a False Valentine, there were calls for DNA testing, which of course are wide of the mark as there exists no point of comparison. Yet it may legitimately be asked how a Dublin priest could have persuaded tourism-conscious Romans to part with such a draw as the complete remains of St Valentine, and what we have here is a minor historical mystery. Perhaps a selection of relics is all that might have been donated to Dublin, and publication of relevant contemporary documents would help to throw some light on the matter.
The Whitefriar Street Carmelites have now published online the following translation of a letter in Latin which accompanied the remains of St Valentine when they arrived in Dublin:
We, Charles, by the divine mercy, Bishop of Sabina of the Holy Roman Church, Cardinal Odescalchi Arch Priest of the Sacred Liberian Basilica, Vicar General of our most Holy Father the Pope and Judge in Ordinary of the Roman Curia and of its Districts, etc, etc.
To all and everyone who shall inspect these our present letters, we certify and attest, that for the greater glory of the omnipotent God and veneration of his saints, we have freely given to the Very Reverend Father Spratt, Master of Sacred Theology of the Order of Calced Carmelites of the convent of that Order at Dublin, in Ireland, the blessed body of St Valentine, martyr, which we ourselves by the command of the most Holy Father Pope Gregory XVI on the 27th day of December 1835, have taken out of the cemetery of St Hippolytus in the Tiburtine Way, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood and have deposited them in a wooden case covered with painted paper, well closed, tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with our seals and we have so delivered and consigned to him, and we have granted unto him power in the Lord, to the end that he may retain to himself, give to others, transmit beyond the city (Rome) and in any church, oratory or chapel, to expose and place the said blessed holy body for the public veneration of the faithful without, however, an Office and Mass, conformably to the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, promulgated on the 11th day of August 1691.
In testimony whereof, these letters, testimonial subscribed with our hand, and sealed with our seal, we have directed to be expedited by the undersigned keeper of sacred relics.
Rome, from our Palace, the 29th day of the month of January 1836.
Regd. Tom 3. Page 291
Philip Ludovici Pro-Custos
For those wishing to visit St Valentine’s Shrine in Dublin, Whitefriar Street Church is located between Aungier Street and Wexford Street, and is just a few minutes’ walk west of St Stephen’s Green. Within the Whitefriar Street Church building there is a shop where one can purchase various souvenirs, such as cards, keyrings and other material bearing Valentine’s image. Unlike most other surviving inner city churches in Dublin, Whitefriar Street always seems to be busy, and as well as the shrine to St Valentine, there are shrines to the Black Madonna and St Albert. The Whitefriar Street Fathers today emphasise St Valentine’s association ‘with young people and their needs as they grow into maturity and adult life’. To express it more romantically, the Whitefriar Street Shrine to St Valentine has been and continues to be a place of pilgrimage for those celebrating love – as well as for those who have lost it or have yet to find it!