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More than 17 centuries have passed since the death of Saint Valentine, who served as bishop of Terni, a small city in the heart of Italy, from 197 until 273 CE. Valentine was a man of God. He preached in Terni, and beyond, until he was beheaded in Rome during the persecutions of Christians by the Emperor Aurelius.
The love that Valentine preached and testified to with his life was the love inspired by the Gospel: “No love is greater than this: than to lay down your life for your friends.” And it was this love that pressed him to help young people to marry.
Sabino and Serapia were the young protagonists of the most famous legend that has linked Saint Valentine to sweethearts and engaged couples over the ages. Sabino was a Roman legionnaire, and Serapia was a Christian from Terni. Sabino’s conversion to Christianity grew stronger together with his love for Serapia and his friendship with Valentine. It led him to refuse to carry arms, engage in violent oppression of others, fight, or engage in war — all of which were tightly linked to his prior life before it turned against power and force. Sabino, thanks to Serapia and Valentino, discovered a love that transformed his life. This ancient message of love and peace echoes forcefully in our present troubled times.
On February 14, 1997, Pope John Paul II wrote that because of Valentine Terni had become “the city of love without borders, the city of universal love.” He thus defined the love that we must live and proclaim: A “love that conquers, breaks down frontiers, and crumbles barriers among human beings. Love that creates a new society.”
Pope Benedict XVI also evoked the theme that God is the source of love, and of eros, too, in his first encyclical, entitled Deus est Caritas, or God is love. In the 2005 publication issued shortly before Saint Valentine’s feast day of Feb. 14, the Pope noted that eros is within the very mystery of God. And when eros is no longer a gift, but a turning inward upon oneself, God saves it with His spirit, agape, so that the human person opens himself again to others, his encyclical said. To a human race overwhelmed by violence and wars, by abandonment and injustice, and to people turned in upon themselves and upon their own personal interests, Pope Benedict wanted to present a God with a human face, a good Father truly in love with human beings.
While society seems to do everything to destroy the ties of love, even treating fidelty with irony, every year hundreds of couples renew their promises of love before the tomb of Saint Valentine in Terni, highlighting vividly that the essence of love is fidelity and can even be fortified by sacrifice.
Love indeed has a tremendously serious dimension if it is to be true. As we cross the threshold of the Third Millennium, we are reminded of the origins and early days of the Church. And from the life of Saint Valentine we receive a beautiful and passionate testimony of his far-reaching, generous love for the entire world.
Valentine modeled himself on Jesus and never allowed fear or egotism to deflect him from his belief or path. He, like many other Christians in the past and still today, gave his life for love. Such Christians include Andrea Santoro, my seminary and middle school classmate, murdered while kneeling in prayer in a church in Turkey. And Francis of Assisi, whose message of love was so like that of Saint Valentine and who also came from Umbria, heart of Christian Italy. And Oscar Romero, who gave his life to defend the poor and the oppressed in El Salvador.
In this century that began under the symbol of terrorism and war, in a world where the risk is that love will be forgotten amidst so many forms of hatred, the message of Saint Valentine points towards love drawn from the profound depths of his own life, showing us a shared path that meets and welcomes all.
Vincenzo Paglia is Roman Catholic bishop of Terni. His contribution to “On Faith” was translated from the Italian by Katherine Marshall, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs