SAN DIEGO — Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.
The holiday, which takes its name from multiple early Christian martyrs named Valentine, is now an overwhelmingly secular celebration, not to mention a highly profitable one for greeting card companies, chocolatiers and florists.
And there isn’t much in the way of a “Keep Valentine in Valentine’s Day” movement to restore its lost religious meaning.
Scant biographical information is avail-able about any of the day’s saintly namesakes, and the little that is known has been supplemented by legends of uncertain historicity. As a result of this, the feast day of St. Valentine is no longer included on the Church’s liturgical calendar, at least not universally.
In some ways, it might seem like the Catholic Church has ceded Valentine’s Day to the secular world. But Catholics active in marriage ministry contend that, even today, the holiday can serve as a yearly reminder for spouses to articulate and demonstrate their love to one another.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of everyday life and take our spouse for granted,” shared Eddie and Sheila Murphy, the San Diego-area servant leaders for Worldwide Marriage Encounter. “Having an annual day like Valentine’s Day to celebrate love is a good reminder, but that’s not enough to build and sustain a healthy marriage. Hopefully, it’s a reminder to communicate our love daily.”
It’s also a day for spouses to take an uncompromising look at the current state of their relationship.
“Sometimes, we act more like we made vows of commitment to our job, or to our 401K, or to our house, and we forget that it’s our spouse that we made that commitment to,” said John Prust, director of the Diocese of San Diego’s Office for Family Life and Spirituality.
Janelle Peregoy, the office’s associate director for separated and divorced ministry, said the most valuable lesson that couples can take from Valentine’s Day is that they should be intentional about their love.
“I say that my marriage is the most important relationship in my life,” said Peregoy, “but, when I look at … how I spend my time, how much of it goes to work?How much of it may go to childcare?”
She added that Valentine’s Day is “an opportunity to just pause and say, ‘Am I putting the time that I want to put into this beautiful relationship that I have sacramentally with this person?’”
Prust encourages married couples not to limit themselves to “the lovey-dovey stuff” this Valentine’s Day, but also to make time to reflect on the beauty of their commitment to one another — and to keep doing so well after heart-shaped boxes of chocolate have been relegated to the clearance shelves.
“Celebrate Valentine’s Day, not just once a year, but as often as you can,” said Prust, who suggests that couples demonstrate their love not only through grand romantic gestures on one designated holiday but through “daily acts of kindness and love.” This could mean something as simple as taking on a chore just to spare one’s spouse from having to do it.
“Those little acts can make humungous difference in terms of sustaining that love” that the couple shares, Prust said.
Based on their experience of 22 years of married life, the Murphys said a successful marriage requires “daily decisions to love and sacrifice” on the part of both spouses, and they likened this to how “going to Mass only once or twice a year is not enough to cultivate and sustain an active faith life.”
“If you plant a tree and only attend to it once a year, the tree may survive, but it will be wilted, stunted and undernourished,” offered Vern and Lorrie Snyder, members of St. Michael Parish in Poway, who have been married for 32 years and are presenters for Worldwide Marriage Encounter.
In order to avoid “suffering that tree’s fate,” they said, “Our relationship needs the nourishment and attention of regular date nights where we focus on each other, attention to our sexual relationship, deep and intimate conversation, forgiveness, and lots of laughter.”
Jesuit Father Michael Ravenkamp regularly works with couples on Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter and Retrouvaille weekends. His day job is with the Diocese of San Diego’s marriage tribunal, where he examines and evaluates the cases of Catholics who are seek-ing annulments.
Romance provides the initial spark for a relationship and it “doesn’t do any harm to put some more kindling on that flame,” he said, though hopefully a couple’s relationship has “a more profound, serious side,” too.
During couples’ weekends, Father Ravenkamp said, participants are invited to reflect on their significant other’s most endearing qualities, write them down and share them with each other.
“How often do we take time out of the day to share with our nearest and dearest just those qualities that we find most endearing?” he asked.
“There’s no reason why we couldn’t do that every day,” he added, noting that it costs nothing and doesn’t require much in the way of planning.
Keeping God at the center of the relation-ship is also essential.
Father Ravenkamp referenced Catholic teaching that the nuptial relationship mirrors Christ’s sacrificial love for humanity.
“The Catholic Church talks about matrimonial love as being a covenant,” with both spouses called to “give their all” just as Jesus held back nothing when He died on the cross for our salvation, he said.
For Ron and Carla Barnett, who have been married for 37 years and have been Marriage Encounter presenters since 2015, the practice of praying together each day was something they began as attendees at a Marriage Encounter Weekend and have continued ever since.
“Over our long marriage, there have been times when God wasn’t at the center,” said the Barnetts, who are members of St. Patrick Parish in Carlsbad. “It’s astonishing to realize now that it was usually during those times when things were not going so well. … There is definitely more peace and harmony in our relationship when God is in the picture.”
As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s also worth recognizing that the potential lessons of the holiday are not limited to those who have been called to the vocation of marriage. Of the three St. Valentines who traditionally have been commemorated on Feb. 14 according to The Catholic Encyclopedia, one is believed to have been a priest and another a bishop.
“St. Valentine was a martyr,” said Father Michael Sinor, a priest of the Diocese of San Diego who has been a Marriage Encounter presenter for more than 20 years. “The word ‘martyr’ originally meant a witness. As priests, we are called to witness to the self-emptying love of God as revealed by Jesus as He emptied Himself to become one with us in our humanity.”
“St. Valentine’s love wasn’t romantic,” he added, “but there was a deepness to it that both priests and couples are called to imitate.”