Today is Valentine’s Day, a day when couples are given special permission to be extra affectionate, guys who never buy flowers buy their wives and girlfriends two dozen roses and when many single people wonder whether next year will finally be the year they have someone for whom to buy chocolate.
Everyone knows that Feb. 14 is a holiday connected in some way to romantic love. Many will know that it has something to do with a Saint named Valentine. A small minority will have some vague idea that he was a priest who married people (or something like that). I personally credit Jason Bach Cartoons with 95% of contemporary Catholic awareness surrounding the life of the actual saint. For those of you who are (defensibly) unaware of the life of this priest, and his festal history in the past decades, allow me to provide a brief primer.
In 1969, following the Second Vatican Council, St. Valentine was removed from regular public commemoration because so little is known about his life. He most certainly existed (that’s his skull at the top there, if you were wondering), and we have records of his public veneration as early as 496, just about two centuries after he was martyred around 270.
Additionally, there were actually two saints named Valentine, both martyred around the same time, and by the same emperor. The first St. Valentine was the Bishop of Terni, Narnia, and Amelia in Italy, and is closely associated with miraculous healings. Bishop Valentine was known as a friend of young people and the sick, and was ultimately martyred for attempting to convert the Roman Emperor Claudius II.
The second St. Valentine, the priest, is where the association with romantic love comes from. The story often goes that he married Christian couples in secret, in defiance of Emperor Claudius’s orders. Once he was found out, he was also executed. Regardless of whether St. Valentine was one priest, one bishop, or two men who were priest and bishop, the association with Christian marriage is one that we should not lose sight of in our modern day celebrations.
Today, a record number of American adults—around 20%—have never been married.
Also today, less than half of people think society is better off if marriage and children are a priority.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic (though I don’t think I am), the family is the foundation of society, and if the family unit crumbles, the society will too. At the core of family is marriage. Thus, if marriage crumbles, so too will family, and the society as a whole will not be far behind. St. Valentine promoted marriage in the Roman empire, and he was literally killed for it. The modern United States isn’t at that point, but that doesn’t mean we should be any less forceful in our defense of sacramental marriage as an institution worth preserving and expanding.
Consider what most people in their 20s and 30s today treat marriage as, in practice. I don’t mean what they put in their vows, or what they speak of, I mean the way they act. Essentially, marriage today is what Dr. Budziszewski would call “cohabitation with formalities.” People who live together before marriage will get married, and very little will change except some rings, a big party and then a vacation. Even popular media is becoming aware of this, as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes remarks in BBC’s Sherlock before Watson’s wedding: “Two people who currently live together are about to attend church, have a party, go on a short holiday and then carry on living together. What’s big about that?”
Marriage as a divinely instituted covenant is something that St. Valentine thought was worth dying for. Marriage is not merely a legal agreement to have a joint bank account, live together and then to possibly divide your possessions in half down the road if you decide it was a mistake. Marriage ought to be a promise before each other and before God. It is something supremely important—something capable of leading yourself, your spouse and your children to heaven. St. Valentine thought that real, sacramental marriage was worth dying for, and we should too.
In college, we are constantly bombarded with questions about our future. “What are you doing when you graduate?” “What are you majoring in?” “Where are you interning this summer?” These are all important questions, and I don’t mind answering them when my friends and family ask, but they all fail to get to the real heart of why I’m studying in college.
Every person of faith, and I daresay even the irreligious, should look to their education as primarily an instrumental good—certainly knowledge has some intrinsic value, but the primary purpose of seeking an education should be to provide a good life for our spouse and our children. You’ll notice I didn’t say “ourselves, our spouse and our children.” That was an intentional omission: the nature of love is to be self-sacrificing, and none in quite spectacular a fashion as the love that comes with marriage and raising children. I don’t have to be married or have children to see how difficult, and fulfilling, it is in the lives of those around me.
If you’re reading this and single, it may seem odd to think of something as foundational to the contemporary American experience as college as being directed towards a spouse you haven’t met and children who don’t exist yet. I don’t have any immediate plans for marriage, but I am dating, so it’s less abstract. We are all called to something in life that will help lead us and those around us to heaven. For most, that vocation is marriage. For others it’s the priesthood, monastic life or living single and in the world. If you are confident that you are called to marriage as the means to sanctify yourself, your spouse and whatever children God blesses you with, but don’t yet have the faintest idea of who that person might be, that’s OK. Pray for them, whoever they are.
Author’s Note: You might notice this is tagged “Luke’s Catholic Corner.” If you liked this (this being a distinctively Catholic take on something), leave some feedback either as a comment or using our contact form, and if it got a positive response I’ll begin writing things like this once or twice a month.