Remains of the Day by Alison benney
Italian may be the language of love, but the patron saint of romance resides in Ireland - at least, what's left of him. St. Valentine, the saint who symbolises romantic love - the thrill of flirtation, the revealing of one's heart, the claiming of another's affection - was a priest, and one of the many early Christian martyrs. His name is popular - there is a bouquet of almost 40 other St. Valentines listed in the "Biographical Dictionary of Saints", including three women, one 40-day pope, and a close competitor in Terni, Italy, who is the patron saint of epilepsy.
But most sources agree that the St. Valentine in Dublin is the one about whom "Roman Martyrology" reports: "After performing many miraculous cures and giving much wise counsel, he was beaten and beheaded" on February 14, 269 A.D. (note to baby-boomers: exactly 1700 years before the Summer of Love).
Valentine's crime, according to legend, was flouting the edict of Emperor Claudius II, who believed that single men made better soldiers and thus forbade young men from marrying. Our gallant priest persisted in performing this sacrament, along with other defiant acts of Christianity, and was ultimately arrested and thrown in a Roman city jail. While there - and this has a tinge of Cupid about it - he corresponded with and healed the blind daughter of a judge, to whom he signed his farewell letter: "from your Valentine."
Hallmark Cards should be paying royalties to his executioner's descendants: the "martyr for love" was conveniently beheaded during the pagan festival of Lupercalia, the day in mid-February when it was said that birds start mating. Following this lead, on February 14, young girls would place love messages in an urn; the young men would draw them out and during the next year each would court the maid whose message he had picked. The late medieval custom of exchanging love notes is recorded by Chaucer in his "Parliament of Foules":
"For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate."
These days, the "ther" could be referring to the pubs on Temple Bar in Dublin where, just a few blocks away, Whitefriar Street Church boasts the dessicated remains of the saint of hearts. The reason for St.Valentine's Italy-to-Ireland transfer is due in part to the rather odd way in which the Vatican rewarded valour in priesthood - in this case, tribute paid to an Irish priest in the early 19th century - but probably more to the point, for the added value that a saint's relics bestow on the church that houses them.
The valourous priest in question, Father John Spratt, was an industrious Irish reverend who worked with the poor denizens of the area known as the Liberties, near the present Guinness brewery. He initiated the construction of Whitefriar Street Church, provided housing for homeless women and children, and established Dublin's oldest charity, the Society for the Relief of Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers. He was also a celebrated speaker - evidently endowed with the indigenous gift of gab.
So in 1835, when the Jesuits invited him to preach at the Gesť church in Rome, his sincerity and eloquence earned him the esteem of Pope Gregory XVI. A year later, St. Valentine was disinterred from the St. Hippolyte Cemetery on the Tiburtine Way and sent to Father Spratt in Dublin. The official letter of certification from the Vatican attests to the removal of the "blessed body" that "we ourselves...have taken out...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." These relics are enshrined at Whitefriar Church in a special chapel, accompanied by a recently carved statue of the saint holding a crocus plant.
Back in Rome, traces of St. Valentine remain: the Gate of St. Valentine, now called Porta del Popolo; the Church of St. Valentine, on Via Flaminia where he was beheaded; plus a sarcophagus and other artifacts inscribed with the saint's name, on display at the Capitoline museum. His name also lives on in the global marketplace, in the form of greeting cards, child's games and chocolates - and most recently e-commerce. Then there's the unforgettable Hollywood hearthrob Rodolfo Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla, better known as Rudolph Valentino.
In fact, the tale of two priests would make a good screenplay: thereÕs romance, suffering, heroism and even mystery. What motivated Pope Gregory to send this particular saintÕs relics to the Emerald Isle at this particular time in history? Perhaps it was a symbol of hope and healing for a country torn by inner strife and stricken with poverty. Perhaps his hand was guided to soften the disastrous blow of the pending potato famine. As Shakespeare himself advised two centuries earlier, ÒThings base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.Ó
So roll over, St. Patrick, St. Brigid, St. Brendan - St. Valentine is Irish, too. And with good reason: after all, aren't all blushing hearts tinged with a bit of green?