St Valentine by Pat Liddy

Saints come in all shapes, semblances, devotion and demeanour but rarely, yet undeservedly, is anyone revered because of his or her relationship with shared love and marriage. Valentine, officially San Valentino of Terni in Italy, he of February 14 fame, is one of those rare exceptions. Even more strangely rare is to find a famous non-Irish holy person having such a close association with Ireland so hence this intriguing and unexpected story.

It all began during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus in the mid-3rd century CE. The details are very sketchy and much of the following story is partly legend and partly based on histories written much later, so the proverbial grain of salt must be taken. In any case it was said that our St Valentine (there are some others of the same name mentioned in the Roman Catholic list of saints) was arrested while visiting Rome. The case made against him was his illegal Christian proselytising and his reputed marrying of couples in secret against the law. Claudius was conducting many savage and unpopular military expeditions and recruitment began to dry up. Knowing that unattached men were more reckless soldiers he is said to have banned marriages and engagements.

The judge who jailed him was somewhat interested in Valentine’s Christianity and took instruction. He had a blind daughter called Julia and Valentine was asked to cure her. Valentine knew that her condition would be difficult to treat but he gave the man his word he would do his best and a series of re-visits were scheduled. One day she asked if God really existed and Valentine assured her that he did. She went on to tell him how she prayed morning and night that she might be able to see. Valentine told her that whatever happened would be God’s will and would be for the best. Several weeks passed and Julia’s sight was not restored. Yet the man and his daughter never wavered in their faith and returned regularly.

Eventually, the sentence of death by clubbing and beheading was carried out on February 14, 269 CE but on the eve of his execution he wrote a last note to Julia. Valentine asked for pen and ink. He quickly jotted a farewell note and handed it to the judge to give to his daughter. He urged her to stay close to God, and he signed it “From Your Valentine.”  When the judge went home after witnessing the execution, he was greeted by his little girl. She opened the note and discovered a yellow crocus inside. As Julia looked down upon the crocus that spilled into her palm she saw brilliant colours for the first time in her life! The girl’s eyesight had been restored! Today, representations of St Valentine always show him holding a bunch of crocuses. The saint was believed to have been buried in a cemetery on the Via Flaminia to the north of Rome.

Whatever the truth or part-truth of this story, Pope Gelasius I decided in 496 to replace an earlier Roman festival of purification and fertility called Lupercalia, held in mid-February, with the Feast of St Valentine. In the Middle Ages Valentine became associated with courtly love and by the 15th century a festivity had evolved in which people expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards, known as “valentines“.

Now we jump to 1835 when the visiting head of the Carmelite order in Dublin, Fr. John Spratt, visited Rome and soon gained a great reputation as a preacher. He came to the attention of Pope Gregory XVI who wanted to present him with a memento of his visit and to show his support for the Irish Roman Catholic Church which was just coming out of a period of hundreds of years of persecution. During a then recent reconstruction of the church of St Praxedes in Rome the bones of what was believed to have been St Valentine were uncovered and the pope decided to place them in a casket along with a phial of his dried blood and dispatch it all to Dublin where they were received with great fanfare.

In time, a special altar was constructed in the Church of Our lady of Mount Carmel (known locally as Whitefriar St Church, on Aungier Street) and the relics have remained there ever since. No one is saying that all the mortal remains of St Valentine are contained within the casket as other churches also claim to have relics of the martyr, but the Vatican has attested that the bones and the blood within are those of the saint. Visitors can write a message in the petition book placed on the altar and if you want to be extra sure your prayer is heard you can also sign the book on the adjoining altar. This is dedicated to St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases!

As you might expect, February 14 is a very special day in the Carmelite church. St Valentine’s casket is removed from its usual position at his side altar and placed on the main altar for veneration. On that day there are special Masses and ceremonies for anyone to come along to have their rings blessed, to renew their marriage vows or to pray for a happy union with the partner of their dreams!

Visits to St Valentine’s altar and casket may be made at any time during opening hours of the church but best to avoid masses and devotions so as not to disturb members of the congregation. More details can be found at Whitefriar St Church’s website.

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