Now, I teach Latin and I’ve been studying Latin for 30 years, and so visiting Rome and seeing all the ruins of the classical period had been my dream for decades.
So we were setting out on our first full day of exploration in Rome. I had planned our visit meticulously, so as to see as many things as efficiently as possible. We started that day with the Baths of Carcalla, the massive remnants of the largest ancient Roman bath house ever built.
From there came a walk westward to arrive at the Circus Maximus. This ancient race track, now just a sprawling open indentation of grassy ground, once allowed up to a million people in the seating section and nearby hills to see the action inside, making it easily the largest sporting facility ever made.
And my planning of our trip included a visit to a marble curiosity just west of the Circus Maximus called La Boca della Verità, the Mouth of Truth. It’s a five-foot tall circular artifact with a fearsome face and gaping hole in the location of the mouth. It was popularized when Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn visited this attraction in the movie "Roman Holiday." Visitors have their picture taken with their hands in the mouth, a mouth, tourists are told, that will bite them if they are not truthful.
Now the line to have your picture taken there stretched far away from the courtyard of the church where La Boca della Verità resides. So we got in the queue and waited and waited and waited for our turn. When finally we had succeeded in our goal, I looked at my sheets to review our next destination.
The wait for La Boca della Verità had taken a bit longer than I had anticipated and I was anxious for us to get back on schedule. And that’s when my wife Adriana asked, “You mean we’re not visiting the inside of the Church?” I glanced back at my notes. This was the Church of St. Mary of Cosmedin. No real historical value. But we were here. And, unlike La Boca della Verità, there was certainly no line to get in.
Now, when I enter a house of worship of a Trinitarian Christian Church, I will make what I consider the appropriate gesture of crossing myself. And a Roman Catholic Church is certainly a place ordinarily full of things worthy of veneration by an Orthodox Christian. If they have icons, I will certainly kiss them.
Upon entering, we immediately spied what seemed to be a reliquary. As we approached, we could see a human skull within a dignified glass and metal case. Leaning toward it, and reading a label atop this skull, my heart stopped. St. Valentine. We stood before the relics of St. Valentine himself. The St. Valentine! We kissed the reliquary, made the Sign of the Cross, and stepped back to take in the scene. A few scattered people took pictures of the somewhat sparsely decorated Sanctuary. Some looked at the reliquary. We didn’t see anyone else venerate the relics with any gesture of love such as we Orthodox perform. And that struck me as sad.
This man, this priest named St. Valentine, has become accidentally one of the most famous Saints of Christendom. You’ve perhaps heard that the best explanation for the origin of the current holiday of Valentine’s Day is that birds were understood to choose their mates for that Spring on February 14th. This date was, coincidentally, the Feast Day of St. Valentine on the Roman Calendar. We Orthodox celebrate the Feast of St. Valentine the Presbyter on July 6th, and the Feast of a St. Valentine, Bishop of Interamna, in Italy on July 30th.
Because the date of February 14th was associated with courtship and the choosing of mates, a medieval tradition evolved for lovers to give each other gifts and messages on that day, leading to our current celebration of Valentine’s Day.
Now, the fact is, we know virtually nothing about St. Valentine. When his name was placed on the Roman Martyrology in the year 496 by Pope Gelasius, he noted that St. Valentine was a martyr, “justly reverenced, but whose acts are known only to God.” This means that they had inherited from the mists of history themselves that a priest named Valentine had been martyred. They had his relics. They had his name and the fact of his martyrdom. All else was lost.
But Pope Gelasius was right. We know he gave his life for the Faith. And that’s all we need to know. That’s enough for us to continue 1800 years after his death to show him proper veneration and love.
And, in the end, there’s nothing at all wrong with our secular holiday of Valentine’s Day. Love, romance, attraction, and affection are part of God’s creation. They are Divine Gifts that have every right to be celebrated from within their proper place. It is good for there to be a day set aside in the year for a man and woman to remind each other that they share this gift of Love from God.
And so, by a strange historical development, this almost anonymous St. Valentine got to share his day with a celebration of love. But that’s okay. Because that’s also how St. Valentine lived and died. Greater love has no one, but that they lay down their life for their friends.