February 14 is an interesting day for Catholic Christians. We live in the midst of a secular culture that celebrates Valentine’s Day, which supposedly marks the joy of romantic love in our lives. However, the Catholic faith prescribes that we celebrate the Memorial of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, a monk and a bishop whose lives did not include romance as we think of it.
So, who and what are we called to celebrate on February 14 each year?
Let’s begin by examining what little is known about the life of St. Valentine, the namesake of Valentine’s Day. St. Valentine of Rome lived and ministered as a priest during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius, in the early 200s. Claudius began to understand that single soldiers fought more vigorously and valiantly than married soldiers, that is, they were willing to die more readily for the Empire. So, he made it illegal for young men to get married. In direct violation of the Emperor’s edict, Valentine performed clandestine marriage rites for the young couples. That’s how he came to be a patron of young lovers. For these illegal, but Christ-centered acts, Valentine was martyred in about the year A.D. 269.
Within a few generations, the Catholic Church began to establish her liturgical calendar, celebrating feast days of certain saints. It is possible that February 14 was chosen as St. Valentine’s memorial to supersede the pagan love festival of Lupercalia, which was, more or less, a city-wide orgy coupled with animal sacrifice. Obviously, that festival was antithetical to the Christian understanding of love, marriage, and sex.
Take note, though, that St. Valentine was not simply a patron of romance in the way we think of it today. He was committed to uniting young men and women in the Christian understanding of marriage: one man and one woman, until death do they part. He was a priest of the Catholic Church, and he was martyred for his faith in the Lord, and for his commitment to Christian love and marriage. Even if we are to celebrate St. Valentine, we should do so from this angle.
In 1969, as one of the effects of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church implemented an update liturgical calendar. The new calendar removed the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day because there was so little that could be accurately known about his life (although still celebrated in the Extraordinary Form). In its place on that day, the Church began celebrating the Memorial of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the apostles to the Slavic peoples of Europe.
Cyril and Methodius were brothers born in the 820s in Thessalonica, a city in Macedonia on the Greek peninsula (the same city to which St. Paul wrote two of his New Testament letters). These brothers took up the call to go and evangelize an eastern European culture that did not yet know the Gospel. They traveled to Khazaria (what is roughly the Ukraine, today), lived in a monastery, learned the native language, and brought many of these people to conversion by their dedication and charity.
After years on that mission, they were called to Moravia, in central Europe. To find success in their new mission, Cyril developed an entirely new alphabet by which they could translate the Bible and other liturgical texts for the people to understand. (This was the precursor of the modern Cyrillic alphabets, including Russian.) During these years, the brothers worked diligently to allow people to read sacred texts and worship in their vernacular language. They did so in the face of opposition from bishops in the Holy Roman Empire who wanted to allow only the use of Latin for purposes of Church mission and ministry.
Cyril, the younger brother, died on February 14, 869, just 50 days after entering a cloistered monastery. The words of his dying prayer give us an indication of his heart for mission. To the Lord, he prayed, “Inspire the hearts of your people with your word and your teaching. You called us to preach the Gospel of your Christ and to encourage them to lives and works pleasing to you. I now return to you, your people, your gift to me.” This reveals that his whole mission was to bring people into transformative relationship with God; and Cyril knew that he played only one small part.
Cyril’s dying wish was that his brother would continue the missionary work they had begun. Shortly after his brother’s death, Methodius was appointed and ordained a bishop. This allowed him to continue the mission of evangelizing the Slavs, despite opposition from bishops within the Empire. His efforts were interrupted by three years in prison when those bishops made him a political enemy of the Empire. Despite such obstacles, Methodius succeeded in translating most of the Bible, and other important religious texts, into the Slavonic language. Again, the guiding vision of mission prevailed.
What, then, do we learn from the lives and works of these three men whom we celebrate on February 14? Regardless of whether we prefer to celebrate St. Valentine or Sts. Cyril and Methodius, it is most appropriate and fruitful for us to celebrate agapé love, the charity that it takes to lay down one’s life for the good of another. And, we celebrate mission, the tireless efforts of men and women to bring that love to individuals and societies who do not already know. See, mission is the expression of love, and agapé is the essence of mission. All three of these men went on mission because they were driven by agapé for others.
On this February 14, let’s celebrate nothing other than agapé (charitable love) and zeal for mission. That is the way that we will change the world!
Sts. Valentine, Cyril, and Methodius, pray for us!