The Rabbi, the Pope, and St. Valentine


David R. Blumenthal


In the Spring of 1996, I was Berman Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at the  Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome for three months. My wife and I stayed at a hotel on Piazza della Bocca della Verità. This is very near for Forum Romanum and it was the meat market for ancient Rome. On this piazza is a very old and beautiful Greek Catholic Church, called Santa Maria in Cosmedin. It is best known for the giant Roman mask set into one of the walls in the anteroom of the Church. The tradition is that, if a liar puts his hand into the mouth of the mask or tells a lie while putting a hand in the mouth, the hand will be eaten. The Church, the mask, and the tradition became famous in the movie Roman Holiday in which Gregory Peck, a reporter, tricks Audrey Hepburn, the princess, into putting her hand into the mask. However, the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is also the home of the relic of St. Valentine.


On February 14th, 1996, I jumped out of bed, dressed and grabbed my camera to go to Santa Maria in Cosmedin to watch the annual procession of the relic of St. Valentine. I arrived and the Church was empty. I asked the Catholic padre, a monk from Lebanon, when the procession would take place and he informed me that Santa Maria in Cosmedin was not an active church; it is a museum under the auspices of the Church, as are many other unused churches in Rome. I asked about the relic of St. Valentine and he said that I could see it. So, he took me to the iron gate at the entrance to the chapel but did not allow me into the chapel. Disappointed, I photographed, as best I could, the relic of St. Valentine and went back to the hotel.


On Ash Wednesday of 1996, my wife, our eldest son Philippe, and myself were invited by the Gregorian Pontifical Institute to attend the Audience with Pope John Paul II. We arrived and, as guests of honor, we were escorted to the first row of seats. The persons to our right were the Secretary of Cultural Affairs of the Italian government with her assistant and her daughter. And the people on our left were a Massachusetts Supreme Court justice and his wife. Before the Audience began, someone came around to confirm our identities. I had been told to identify myself as Rabbi David Blumenthal, currently teaching at the Gregorian Pontifical Institute, which I did. And they asked in which language would we be addressing His Holiness; we indicated English, though we knew that the Pope spoke many languages.


After a moving ceremony at which the Pope blessed everyone and, for Catholics, the objects they had brought with them, the Pope exited stage left and came down to the level of the audience. He proceeded to walk along and bless everyone, beginning with the sick and the brides and grooms in the first row of that side of the auditorium. He, then, moved to our row. As he approached, he put his hands behind his back and they were sprayed with disinfectant for each person and the identity and language to be used was whispered into his ear. So, he knew who I was and what language to speak when he came to me.


I introduced myself and he stopped to talk to me. The paparazzi jumped up, having no idea who I was but, if the Pope stopped, it must be important. I presented the books I had inscribed and brought with me. One of the titles was Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. The Pope looked at the title, at me, at the title, and again at me. I later learned that he knew exactly what it meant and asked about the book. I do not know if he read it. He, then, passed off the books to someone behind him, took my hands in his, and said, “May God bless you,” without invoking Jesus. This was very moving. After all, he is the Pope and we are in the Vatican. But Pope John Paul II intentionally, to honor my Jewishness, did not invoke Jesus.


I introduced my wife and, as she shook hands with the Pope and she wished him, “Good health and life bis hundert und zwanzig.” In Jewish parlance, she had wished him good health and life (he was already sick) until 120 years of age, the age of Moses as recorded in the Bible. However, my wife had switched languages in the middle, a common family habit. The Pope did understand German; he was just not prepared for the “code switching” of languages. So, Pope John Paul II, who was quite tall, leaned over my wife to catch what she had said. I quickly whispered in her ear, “Use English” while my son whispered in her other ear, “Don’t confuse the Pope.” She corrected herself and he understood. Then, the Pope took her hands and my hands in his, and repeated his blessing, without the name of Jesus. He, then, greeted my son briefly, took the hands of all of us and repeated the blessing. All this was captured by the paparazzi. See foto.


Several days later, after the paparazzi had sent us the photographs (with a bill), I went back to Santa Maria in Cosmedin and showed the pictures to the Lebanese padre in charge of the Church. He was mightily impressed, and insisted that he show me the relic of St. Valentine up close. So, he unlocked the chapel and took me up to the front. Here are the pictures of the St. Valentine, if you want to meet him nose to nose. See foto (1) and foto (2).


Here is the traditional story of St. Valentine:


Legend would have it that, at the time of the Emperor Claudius II, the Christian priest, Valentine, was arrested. He was accused of wanting to sanctify the union of a man and a woman with a Christian marriage ceremony, which was illegal under the rule of the pagan Emperor.


In prison, Valentine visited the blind daughter of his jailer and, before being decapitated on the 14th of February 270 C.E., he sent to the girl – after having sketched on the paper a heart-shaped leaf growing on the vine of a violet plant – a brief adieu saying, “from your Valentine.”


From this, comes the tradition, which still exists, of sending love notes to one’s dear one on the 14th of February.


For a fuller study of St. Valentine and Valentine’s Day, see Wikipedia.

For a fuller study of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, see Wikipedia.