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Pope Valentine served with heart and soul

Today is Feb. 14, St. Valentine's Day. We've celebrated it for centuries, so the day hardly seems unusual.

What does seem unusual, however, is the number of Christian men named Valentine worthy of the title Patron Saint of Love.

If you've had trouble picking a valentine in your life, pity the ancient Catholic Church. It had a good half-dozen Valentines to choose from - some of them as similar as twin brothers.

Spiritual souls who share the same name are common, of course. Giving children religious names is a tip-of-the-hat to tradition and a wish that goodness will rub off on them.

Jesus had an ancestor named Joseph, for instance, a stepfather named Joseph, a brother named Joseph and a friend named Joseph. A man named Joseph buried him.

And three different Marys visited that tomb - and that's not counting Mary the mother of John Mark and Mary the wife of Clopas.

Today in Latin America parents often name all the sons in the family Joseph and all the daughters Mary, along with their given names.

So confusion with such names is understandable. It's the confusion over the name Valentine that gets eerie.

An ancient history of Christian martyrs claims there were actually two St. Valentines honored on Feb. 14.

Both were beheaded.

Both were loving souls killed on the Flaminian Way in Italy.

Both died around A.D. 270.

Surprisingly, many scholars agree. One saint was called Valentine the Priest, the other Valentine the Bishop. And that wouldn't be too much to handle if there weren't a second St. Valentine the Bishop - a soul known for his loving kindness who has his own St. Valentine's Day in the middle of winter on Jan. 7.

The "January 7th" St. Valentine was a missionary and a great teacher. And he should never be mistaken - needless to say - for the missionary and great teacher Valentinus, a Christian holy man in A.D. 135. Valentinus was gentle and reflective. A man of love.

In fact, Valentinus was a lot like Pope Valentine.

And that gets us to the heart of this Valentine business. The whole reason I've been force-feeding you ancient history is so I can mention my own favorite Valentine: Pope Valentine of Rome.

I like him because no one remembers him.

No one knows when he was born or when he died.

He's never mentioned.

And yet, my sense is he was as good as all the other Valentines. Maybe better.

Back in A.D. 827, Valentine was a young man - practically a kid - who was so serene and humble that Pope Paschal I made him a cardinal deacon. When Pope Eugene II died, the nobility and religious leaders got together and sought Valentine out to be pope.

They found him praying in the church of St. Mary Major.

Valentine refused at first, so the group led him to the Lateran Basilica and insisted he be pontiff. He finally agreed.

Valentine served as pope for just 40 days - a fine, symbolic span of time that calls to mind biblical episodes of 40 days of fasting and 40 days of rain. But in that time he became known for his wonderful mercy, his progressive ideas and his honest, heart-felt spirituality.

The fact that he has never become a religious celebrity and has never been placed above the rest of the world as a saint would have surely pleased him.

I know it tickles me.

Valentine was buried at the Vatican without much fanfare. There is no fanfare today.

So, when you hand your Valentine's Day card to your valentine, pick out a St. Valentine to thank. I'll be picking the pope, the anonymous man of compassion. In fact, I've probably done him a great disservice just by mentioning my admiration.