February 12, 2023

Dear friends in Christ,

In the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus teaches us that fulfilling God’s law is not only by obeying the letter of the law, but more importantly, by living the true spirit of the law, which is love. After all, God’s commandments are given, not to burden us, but to help us learn the way of love, and become true images of God Who is Love. In the end, everything boils down to the heart, and God always looks into the heart.

Speaking of the heart, I am reminded by the heart-shaped chocolate boxes that we see everywhere these days that this Tuesday, February 14, is Valentine’s Day. For some people, Valentine’s Day brings up lots of painful memories, just like any other holiday. Some people dislike the pressure that comes with a day like that. For me, Valentine’s Day is not tied to gushy romance or obligation or painful experiences. I cherish it for its core concept. It’s about love — and what’s not to like about love? It is an opportunity to be thankful for the people who love us and a challenge to love others a little more, the way God has commanded us to do. The focus of this holiday, therefore, is on our relationship with one another and with God, the One who loves us unconditionally first.

There are several legends surrounding the origin of this holiday. One of them involves the story of Saint Valentine, a priest living in Rome about 250 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Claudius. Claudius wanted young men to join his large army. However, many men just did not want to be in the army and fight in wars. They did not want to leave their wives or their fiancés and their families. Since not many men signed up to be in the army, Claudius decided not to allow any more marriages. After the Emperor’s decree forbidding marriages throughout his empire, Father Valentine secretly performed marriage ceremonies. He would whisper the blessing to couples while hiding it from the authorities. One evening, the priest was caught performing a wedding and was arrested. He was told that his punishment was death. Many young people came to the jail to visit him. They threw flowers and notes up to his window. They wanted him to know that they, too, believed in married love. One of these young people was the daughter of the prison guard. Her father allowed her to visit him in his cell. She believed he did the right thing by ignoring the emperor and performing marriage ceremonies. On the day he was to die, he left her a note thanking her for her friendship and loyalty. He signed it, “Love from your Valentine.” That note started the custom of exchanging love notes on Valentine’s Day. It was written on the day he died, February 14, 269 A.D. Today, the site of St. Valentine’s martyrdom has been converted into a famous Church, located only a short walk from where I used to live in the heart of Rome. On St. Valentine’s Day, that Church would be filled with red roses from pilgrims who come to venerate the Saint’s relics and celebrate his heroic sacrifice.

No matter the origin of St. Valentine’s Day, it is good to celebrate love. As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton once said, “Love affects more than our thinking and our behavior toward those we love. It transforms our entire life. Genuine love is a personal revolution. Love takes your ideas, your desires, and your actions and welds them together in one experience and one living reality, which is a new you.” Thus, our loving relationships profoundly shape and impact our lives. Knowing that you are loved by God and others changes you in your inner core. Having people to show your love to also changes you in your inner core. There is no doubt that love is what life is all about. It is the greatest source of meaning in life and is by far the deepest yearning of the human heart. The lack of love brings serious dysfunctions, along with a lack of confidence, the inability to have meaningful relationships and a joyful life.

St. Paul, addressing the Church in Corinth that was filled with discord and polarization, exhorted them: “Do everything in love,” (1 Corinthians 16:14). The Apostle continues to remind us that everything passes, including wealth, success, talents. In the end, he said, “only these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The kind of love St. Paul spoke about is not the sentimental, romantic kind of love based largely on feelings that the world promotes all the time, and often symbolized by the heart-shaped commercial gifts bought and sold in stores, but it is the disinterested, life-giving love inspired by God’s own love, and symbolized by the pierced, flaming Sacred Heart of Jesus. By its nature, this kind of love is sacrificial and is always directed towards the good of the beloved.

And this is the kind of love that we are called to offer to one another. Let this love be our Valentine to everyone, especially to those who hunger for love, and even to those who may not be so lovable in our lives.

Happy Saint Valentine’s Day!

Msgr. Cuong M. Pham