For the most part, I’m fine with being a nonbeliever. Like Bill Mahr says, "it requires so little of your time.” But every once in a while, I’m struck by how limiting my worldview can be. Take, for instance, the fact that I’ll never be a Whirling Dervish. That's a real bummer. I'd love to be able to spin like that. And even worse? The chances are almost zero that I'll ever be sainted.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wendy! Don’t be so negative! You are a fantastic person, and you help so many others in need." And to that, I say, “Thank you. Really. I’m touched and humbled by your words.” But the truth is, I'm not saint material. First of all, there’s a whole, like, process to being sainted, and despite my obvious assets, Catholics have surprisingly strict requirements: believing in God, performing miracles, being dead, etc.
The whole subject is really interesting, actually, which is why I'm dedicating this installment in the Holiday Cheat Sheet series to a real saint: St. Valentine.
Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day
Religion Represented: Christianity
Date: Feb. 14
Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.
What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.
On a Scale of 1 to 10: Valentine’s Day ranks at about .5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said it's rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday. (Although the fact that my nephew's Jewish preschool doesn't celebrate Valentine's Day proves that the connection isn't entirely lost.)
Stars of the Show: St. Valentine
Back Story: No one really knows, but many believe "Valentine" referred to not one saint, but several. Sometimes you’ll hear that St. Valentine was a priest killed for continuing to perform marriages even after Emperor Claudius II outlawed them in 3rd century. Supposedly, according to this story, Claudius thought single men made better soldiers and prohibited marriage for a time. But this is legend, rather than belief.
Associated Literary Passages: There are none.
So what’s a saint?: The word “saint” has different meanings. But usually when we hear the word, we’re talking about a Catholic who has been dead a number of years and who now serves as a sort of liaison between people and God. Catholics often pray directly to certain saints in hope that their prayers are more likely to be heard. And many saints — “patron saints” — have specialties, relating to the places where they lived, the professions they held, or some particular malady or situation they encountered during their lifetimes. Here’s a list of patron saints, broken down by their specialties. I found one, St. Drago, who is the patron saint of unattractive people. Poor guy.
The difference between Christian and Catholic: A Catholic is a Christian whose church is led by the pope. Catholics believe that their church alone was “founded” by Jesus Christ, and that the pope is the sole successor to Simon Peter (St. Peter), who features prominently in the New Testament and was pivotal in the spread of early Christianity. (It's this successorship thing that makes Pope Benedict's resignation so tricky for the church.) I wrote about 12 differences between Protestants and Catholics here.
Becoming a saint: Sainthood used to be rather informal. Christian martyrs — those who refused to turn against their religion and were killed for it — and other pious people were often “sainted” after they died. In more recent years, however, the Vatican has imposed specific requirements to canonization. In order to be considered a saint, one must perform two miracles after they’re dead. Yes, you heard me right: After.
Conveying meaning to kids: Use the holiday to explain a little bit about Catholicism. You might start off by explaining that although all Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was the son of God, Catholics have other beliefs and special rules they follow. You can tell them that many Catholics believe that God has helpers in heaven, called saints, and that these helpers listen to people’s prayers and ask God to answer them. You might ask your child to pay attention to all the places “saint” appears in their everyday life — from the name of the New Orleans football team, to the names of cities and islands and universities, skin products and watches. You might find out if there’s a saint who shares your child’s name.
That and, of course, you know, candy hearts.
A version of this post originally appeared in February 2012