Why is St. Valentine a symbol of love?

Valentine's Day is the busiest restaurant day of the year after Mother's Day. Couples vie with each other to share protestations of love. Grade school children share Valentines far and wide. How did this public demonstration of love get to be associated with St. Valentine? Who was he? What might it mean for us today?

Valentine is the name of two saints, one a bishop and one a priest, who were martyred in the middle of the third century and honored on Feb. 14. According to the life of one of them, he sent letters of encouragement to people. The Bollandists, Jesuit scholars who have studied the calendar of saints for centuries, are of the opinion that in fact there is only one St. Valentine who ended up being celebrated in two different cities.

Because the facts of these lives are very sketchy, St. Valentine's Day was not included in the most recent version of the calendar of saints. Feb. 14 is now the memorial of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the apostles to the Slavs and the subject of an encyclical of Saint John Paul II.

The more likely association between lovers and St. Valentine is the medieval belief that birds would choose their partner on his day. Chaucer explores this conceit in his poem, "The Parliament of Fowls." From that reference until now, St. Valentine's Day has been associated with the idea that it is a good thing for two people in love to affirm that to each other - and to tell the world too!

Although the idea that Valentine's Day is for lovers is based on medieval conceptions of animal behavior and a chance mention in a poem, the actual focus on telling others that they are loved is something that emerges from a scriptural truth: God is love. While it isn't in keeping with Gospel simplicity to spend hundreds of dollars (or more) on roses, rubies, and repasts, to spend the day telling others they are loved is a good thing. So, too, would be to meditate on how God's love permeates our world, perhaps by reading Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est - God Is Love.

Rev. Michael Witczak is an associate professor of liturgical studies and an expert on saints at Catholic University in Washington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015