The Roman Martyrology's traditional entry for today - Die 14 februarii memoria Romae via Flaminia iuxta pontem Milvium, sancti Valentini, martyris - refers to a certain Valentinus, martyred on February 14, at Rome on the Via Flaminia near the Milvian Bridge. Beyond his martyrdom, nothing very certain is known about his life - as Pope Gelasius I himself acknowledged when he added Saint Valentine to the calendar in 496. How he became patron of lovers and of romance would seem to be anybody’s guess.
Gelasius I also abolished the pagan Roman festival of Lupercalia, which used to occur on this date. It honored the wolf which had nursed Romulus and Remus, Rome’s founders. But originally Lupercalia was probably pre-Roman, and the festival had strong associations with fertility and even romance. So one popular theory is that the romantic customs connected with Lupercalia survived in barely christianized form in Saint Valentine's Day.
One influential later legend about Saint Valentine claims that he incurred the Emperor's hostility because he performed marriages in defiance of an imperial edict. Whatever actually happened historically, that legend does at least attempt to make a connection between the actual martyr saint and the romantic associations which have long since come to characterize his day, and does so in a way which speaks to a contemporary concern.
Our society could certainly use someone like Saint Valentine’s help again today. There is no longer an emperor attempting to outlaw marriage, but marriage and stable family life are widely recognized as being in an increasingly precarious state - as evidenced by the abandonment of marriage by many and the common acceptance of divorce among those who do marry, all of which is being exacerbated in today’s stratified society by increasing economic inequality, which makes marriage less and less accessible to many in less favored socio-economic circumstances. Thus, for example, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, published in 2012, Charles Murray claimed that less than half of working-class young adults (ages 30-49) are married. And, in Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America (published in 2013 by The National Campaign to Combat Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, The Relate Institute, and The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia) the report’s authors argued that more than half of those without college or university degrees have their first child while unmarried.
It is perhaps possible to dismiss Valentine's Day as little more than a commercialized exploitation of the nearly universal desire to have someone to love and be loved by in return. But perhaps the legend of Saint Valentine spreading the benefits of marriage may deserve some more serious attention - and not just once a year - as we as a society grapple with extending access to the social benefits associated with marriage and family stability to those less socio-economically well off.