Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, coincides this year with Valentine’s Day.

So practicing Catholics should plan to skip any romantic steak dinners that day, according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago — just as they’re supposed to abstain from eating meat every year on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during Lent.

The archdiocese — which includes Cook and Lake counties — put out an announcement on that after being asked about the rare coincidence of the secular and church holidays.

“We only had one or two members of the public call and a pastor called about some of his parishioners calling on it,” says Susan Thomas, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

Still, the archdiocese decided to put out a “preemptive” clarification, Thomas says.

“Catholics throughout the world recognize Ash Wednesday as the solemn beginning of a period of prayerful reflection and penance, as is evident by the large number of churchgoers on this day,” the announcement to parishioners said. “In view of the significance of Ash Wednesday, the obligation of fast and abstinence must naturally be the priority in the Catholic community.”

And the archdiocese suggested an alternative: “Valentine’s Day can appropriately be celebrated the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which also happens to be Mardi Gras, a traditionally festive time before beginning our Lenten observance.”

This is just the eighth time since the end of the Civil War that the holidays have coincided and the first since 1956, according to the Rev. James Halstead, an associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University, who also preaches at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston.

“I’ve been doing this for 42 years, and I’ve never seen this before,” said Halstead, calling the timing this year “an absolute delight for the preacher.”

The date of Easter, and therefore the date of Ash Wednesday, is determined by the date of the spring equinox — this year, spring starts on March 21. Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox. Ash Wednesday is 40 days — not including Sundays — before Easter.

Halstead said he’s thinking about using his Ash Wednesday homily to call on parishioners to “love intensely for the next 40 days, as St. Valentine would have us do.

“It’s Valentine’s Day, for God’s sake,” Halstead said. “Do those things that cultivate love. Talk to people, eat with people, share a drink with people.”

He also has another suggestion in view of the timing of Valentine’s Day this year: “Don’t give up candy for Lent. Give up your cell phone.”