In ancient Rome, February 14th was a holiday to honour Juno – the Queen of the Roman Gods and Goddesses and the Goddess of women and marriage. The following day, February 15th, began the Feast of Lupercalia. At the time, the lives of young boys and girls were strictly separate except for the annual custom of name drawing. On the eve of the festival, the names of Roman girls were written and placed into jars. Each young man would draw a girl’s name from the jar and they would then be partners for the duration of the festival. Sometimes the pairing of the children lasted an entire year and often, they would fall in love and would later marry. Under the rule of Emperor Claudius II, Rome was involved in many unpopular campaigns and Claudius had a difficult time getting young men to join his army. He believed that one reason was that men did not want to leave their loved ones so he cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome. He also ordered the worship of the state’s idols and made it a crime punishable by death to associate with Christians. But one man named Valentine was dedicated to Christ and not even the threat of death could keep him from practicing his beliefs. Valentine and Saint Marius aided the Christian martyrs and secretly performed marriage ceremonies. For this kind deed Valentine was apprehended and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off.
Another legend surrounding his martyrdom is that he was teaching a young blind girl named Julia about the faith when he was apprehended. On the eve of his death, he wrote a last note to her, knowing his death was imminent. He urged her to stay close to God, and he signed it “From Your Valentine.” His sentence was carried out the next day, February 14, 269 A.D., near a gate that was later named Porta Valentini in his memory. When Julia opened the note, she discovered a yellow crocus inside. As she looked down upon the crocus she saw its brilliant color; her eyesight had been restored. Valentine was buried at what is now the Church of Praxedes in Rome, near the cemetery of St Hippolytus. It is said that Julia planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near his grave. Today, the almond tree remains a symbol of love and friendship.
In 496 Pope Gelasius I named February 14 as Saint Valentine’s Day. On each Valentine’s Day, messages of affection, love and devotion are exchanged around the world. This could be because of Valentine’s work in marrying couples against the law or because of the miracle worked for Julia and the message he left her. Others believe that people in medieval times sent love notes during February because it was seen as the mating season of birds and that Valentine’s feast falling in the middle of the month assumed that tradition.
Throughout the centuries since Valentine’s martyrdom there have been various basilicas, churches and monasteries built over the site of his grave. In the early 1800s as one such work was taking place, the remains of St. Valentine were discovered along with a small vessel of his blood and some other relics. In 1835 an Irish Carmelite by the name of Father John Spratt was visiting Rome. He was well known in Ireland for his skills as a preacher and for his work among the poor and destitute in Dublin’s Liberties area. He was also responsible for the building of a new church to Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Whitefriar Street. While in Rome, he was asked to preach and the elite of Rome flocked to hear him. He received many tokens of esteem from the hierarchy of the Church and one such token, given by Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846), was a casket or reliquary containing the remains of Saint Valentine.
On November 10, 1836, the reliquary containing the remains of the saint arrived in Dublin and were brought in solemn procession to Whitefriar Street Church where they were received by Archbishop Murray of Dublin. With the death of Fr. Spratt, interest in the relics died away and they went into storage. During a major renovation in the church in the 1950s/60s they were returned to prominence with an altar and shrine being constructed to house them and enable them to be venerated. A statue was carved by Irene Broe depicting the saint in the red vestments of a martyr and holding a crocus in his hand.
Today, the Shrine is visited throughout the year by couples who come to pray to St. Valentine and to ask him to bless their lives together. The feast day of the saint on February 14 brings many couples to the Eucharistic celebrations that day which include a Blessing of Rings for those about to be married. On the feast day, the Reliquary is removed from beneath the side-altar and is placed before the high altar in the church and is there venerated at the Masses.
The Shrine to St Valentine is on the right side of the church as one enters and the casket sits beneath the marble altar in a niche protected by an ornate iron and glass gate. Above the altar stands the life-sized statue of the saint set into a marble mosaic alcove. The saint is also barefoot. The casket is wooden and on top is the papal coat of arms of Gregory XVI along with two large gold plates which have the letter of Cardinal Odescalchi inscribed in English upon them. Between these two plates and beneath the papal crest is a smaller plate with the inscription: This shrine contains the sacred body of Saint Valentinus the Martyr, together with a small vessel tinged with his blood. These are contained within a small wooden box, covered in painted paper, tied with a red silk ribbon and sealed with wax seals. This container is inside the casket which is seen beneath the altar. The outer casket has only been opened on a couple of occasions to verify that the contents are intact. The inner box has never been opened nor the seals broken to disturb the patron saint of lovers who sleeps in Ireland.