Today is St. Valentine's Day, although the Church decided, in 1969, to take him off the general calendar. St. Cyril and Methodius, co-patrons (with St. Benedict) of Europe, are commemorated today.
While I have no problem with these two significant saints, I think it a shame St. Valentine got bumped. After all, this is one of a handful of saints who actually have high name recognition among the larger society -- that's quite an advantage, which the Church should press.
Alas, the "Saint" in St. Valentine is slipping, such that you have reasonably intelligent people, such as those pleasant folks on NPR, who seem not to know Valentine is a saint.
So, yesterday, they had an item with Susan Stanberg, on the color red. It was introduced by the host with the words, "how did red come to be associated with love?" Well, the pleasant Ms. Stanberg rattled on about it all, but managed deftly to avoid the rather obvious fact that since Saint Valentine was a martyr, and the color associated for long centuries in Christendom with martyrdom is . . . red, the only remaining link to be formed is, how did Saint Valentine's day come to be associated especially with love? The especially is important, insofor as it is rather obvious -- at least to anyone not deep in the bowels of secularism such as those nice folks at NPR -- that people died for Christ out of, um, er, . . . love! Well, instead of all that, we heard about illegal, Japanese red underwear. No, of course, that's far more likely an explanation than mine. How silly of me.
Admittedly, we don't know anything for sure about St. Valentine, but there seems no reason to dispute there was a St. Valentine. The claim that oh-so-smart people assume -- without ever actually proposing and attempting to prove -- that the early Church just made up these saints willy-nilly, seems dubious to me. Why should they have? They had more than enough indisputably real saints, an abundance of them -- that is utterly beyond contestation. There were martyrs everywhere, far more than they could keep track of. That they would set all that aside, and then invent saints, seems totally ridiculous to me.
The very fact that seems to demonstrate the truth of so many of these saints is precisely the absence of information about them. If you invented a character, you would also invent a story about him or her. Yet for so many of those saints, we know next to nothing. Why, then, would devotion to such a saint survive? The only reason is the preservation of a memory of a real person, to whom someone felt a real debt.
Have you ever noticed how certain trappings of Christian culture capture people's imagination? St. Blase -- who knows anything about him, other than the blessing of the throats and the candles? St. Francis of Assisi is far better known, but what lives best in folks' memory? Blessing of animals. So the development of St. Valentine's Day is hardly surprising. What's alternately dismaying and amusing is that bright people can walk down the street of our culture, and see these obvious signs that our culture substantially is the product of Christendom, and yet miss it all. You do have to feel pity for the occasional, insightful athiest who actually sees all this; it must invite despair.
Another thought: have you noticed how a number of these things that have imbedded deep in the culture occur in cold months? Before electricity and easy travel, cold winter months would have meant far fewer interesting things to do; so it's not hard to see why the day of an otherwise obscure saint might become a big deal. It's the middle of February--who cares what the occasion is, anything to break the monotony!
Anyway, I wish the Church had left poor Valentinus his day; but then a thought occurred to me at Mass: on a ferial day -- that is, a day of Ordinary Time, which has no mandated saint's observance -- a priest can offer a votive Mass for a saint at his discretion. Perhaps next February 13, I shall offer Mass for St. Valentine? Who knows, maybe when it next falls on a Friday, we could have an evening Mass, and a social event following? Then when they see the priest wearing, um, red!, they'll get the connection.