Initially posted on the McGrath Institute for Church Life blog, published at the University of Notre Dame, on February 14.
Valentine’s Day can be awkward for a lot of people. It’s unlikely the holiday will come up in Church conversations, except in the young adults group. Catholics may see little connection between their faith and the chocolate overdoses of February 14. But it is a day that takes on new dimensions when viewed through a Christian lens.
Unfortunately, we can’t “baptize” this celebration of love as was done in the past; we can’t call it “Saint Valentine’s Day” anymore. Doubts surrounding historical details about Valentine of Rome, believed to have been a third-century martyr, resulted in his removal from the liturgical calendar of feast days. Nevertheless, he’s still the patron saint of virtuous romance. And it’s arguably still good to give human love its own place on the calendar, albeit a secular one.
The downplaying of Saint Valentine is not a crisis. True love still has many champions. The connection between Feb. 14 and eternity is secure. Every saint is, ipso facto, a patron (supporter) of loving, just as every saint is a patron of thanksgiving. More to the point, God is Love. Jesus Christ incarnated on earth the highest form of love, agape, marked by self-donation and transformation. In 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, St. Paul painted a picture of love more comprehensive than any saint’s hagiography. Love is patient and kind. Love never fails.
Valentine’s Day is also a great time to focus on the human heart. The standard image is omnipresent in media and marketing, but it remains an evocative symbol. My New World Dictionary Concordance to the New American Bible says this: “In biblical language, the heart is the vital center of life that is specifically human: sense life, the life of the will and intellectual life. For this reason, the figurative use of the word is vaster in the Bible than in modern languages.”
The Bible speaks of thoughts arising from the heart. Both Old and New Testaments describe numerous qualities possessed by the heart: It sees and listens; it responds and understands; it is obedient and steadfast. “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
Our Catholic faith and human nature are especially drawn to the particular qualities of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. These inspire our efforts to cultivate compassion, perseverance, purity and contrition, flowing through wounded hearts.
No amount of advertising, sentimentality or ostentation will overwhelm our whole-hearted witness. Perhaps we can keep the Valentine vision elevated through our reflections and conversations, both in parishes and in our encounters with those on the margins of human affection.
February 14 can challenge us to take love more seriously. My wife Eileen and I, in discussing our evening restaurant plans, can share our backstory: We’re celebrating our gratitude for blessings that have made our home a domestic church.
Priests and chaste singles can evangelize through their discoveries that true love still abounds even if it doesn’t fit the greeting-card mold. The word “heart” is indeed vaster in its spiritual meaning than in the languages of popular culture and the marketplace!
Kids can treat themselves to those chalky candy hearts. First, help them realize that some of the “platitudes” imprinted thereon— “Hug Me,” “Smile,” “Be True,” “For You”—hint at deep longings of the lonely.
Catholic families and parishes must be refuges where dumbed-down interpretations of love visibly rise to the higher ideals of agape. Do we allow the culture’s standards to sink, or do those candy hearts connect to the Sacred Heart? Let’s share and exemplify our love stories—especially how our relationships with the Lord make Valentine’s Day sweeter.
It may be awkward. But, knowing there’s a Saint Valentine interceding for us, we can follow his lead—standing in as patrons for a day. Love never fails, so we shall not fail love.