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On this holiday of love, look to the saints

Happy St. Valentine’s Day!

Notice I included the St., short for Saint.

Yes, it’s the truth: This holiday for lovers got its name from a third-century Roman saint. Valentinius, his name in Latin, was a big-hearted priest who lost his life when he refused Emperor Claudius II’s demand that he renounce his Christian faith in a loving God.

The connection to romance didn’t come until the 14th century. Courtly love was the thing in those days, and somebody observed that birds began pairing up and mating in mid-February. Since Feb. 14 was St. Valentine’s feast day, he became the patron saint of human lovebirds.

But somewhere along the way since then, long before “Fifty Shades of Grey” hit the bookstores and movie theaters, this heart-shaped holiday became just plain old Valentine’s Day.

Google Saint Valentine’s Day now, and you’re likely to get steered to that most unsaintly of events: The gangland slaying, ordered by Al Capone, that riddled seven rivals with 90 bullets on Feb. 14, 1929. The newspapers dubbed it the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

I wish only the best to couples celebrating their love on this special day.

But here’s an invitation: Consider making this St. Valentine’s Day a launching pad for rediscovering the saints as models for all of us to practice a larger love – one that extends way beyond our families and friends. The world could sure use more of those kinds of saints.

The Roman Catholic Church, which has been canonizing saints for centuries, looks for figures of heroic sanctity who inspire people and show them ways to love God and one another.

By that definition, you and I probably have saints all around us. Who inspires you to really love? Start copying them.

Some look to traditional saints who embraced radical love. Pope Francis took the name of St. Francis of Assisi, who gave up a life of luxury – his father was a rich merchant – to serve the poor.

Charlotte is filled with churches named after other first-name-only saints who are worth emulating: Peter, Patrick, Ann, Matthew, Luke, Mark, John, Joseph and Margaret.

I wish a Catholic church here would name itself for Sister Katherine Drexel (1858-1955).

Canonized a saint in 2000, this heiress of a bank fortune in Philadelphia became a nun and spent $20 million building churches and schools, always with an eye to helping African-Americans and Native Americans – groups treated with indifference, even contempt, by many so-called Christians of her time.

She agreed to donate church construction money to Belmont Abbey and St. Peter Catholic in uptown Charlotte if they committed to reserving some pews for blacks.

Another nun, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, was canonized quickly after her death – and rightfully so.

To me, a Catholic, some of the other greatest modern-day saints – i.e., inspiring lovers of God and humanity – were non-Catholics ( Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer), non-Christians ( Gandhi, Anne Frank, Abraham Heschel) or Catholics who were never canonized ( Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day). Google them and prepare to be touched.

A few years ago, I would have added Oscar Romero to that list of uncanonized Catholic saints. But, thanks to Pope Francis, this martyred bishop from El Salvador who stood up for the poor is now on the fast track to official sainthood.

On this St. Valentine’s Day, let me leave you with Romero’s words of love, delivered on the day he was shot in the heart in 1980 while celebrating Mass:

“The person who gives himself to the service of others will be like a grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies – but only apparently dies, for by its death, its wasting away in the ground, a new harvest is made.”

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