12 Nov Saint Philomena: The Saint of the Impossible
Saint Philomena's feast day today. Ora pro nobis.
By Ed Masters
Photos by Beverly Stevens
If you have an impossible dream this Christmas, St. Philomena may be your Saint!
Eighteen centuries ago, a 13 year old girl was sentenced to death for no other crime than that of practicing her faith, which included her vow never to marry. After repeated and savage attempts failed to kill her, she was finally beheaded. Her body was hurriedly buried in the Roman catacombs by her Christian friends.
This victim was meant to disappear without a trace, without a ripple, remembered only by her close friends and family. She was meant to be one of many nameless faces slaughtered for refusing to adhere to tyranny. She was not even supposed to be remembered as a footnote to history.
God had other plans, however — ones that were centuries in the making.
NEAR NAPLES LIE THE RUINS OF POMPEII AND HERCULANEUM, BURIED BY THE ERUPTION OF MT. VESUVIUS OVER THE COURSE OF THREE DAYS IN AUGUST IN 79 AD. For 16 centuries these cities remained buried and forgotten, until excavations began in earnest in the year 1748. In the city of Rome there are catacombs 30-50 feet below the surface where for nearly 300 years Christians buried their dead. These enormous structures hold the remains of millions of Christians entombed there over the course of three centuries. The 19th Century would see excavation fever gripping Italy, as archaeologists discovered and explored these cities and Rome’s ancient network of catacombs.
In 1802, in the catacombs of St. Priscilla in Rome on the Via Salaria Nova an inscribed loculus (space hollowed out of the rock) was found. Archaeologists unearthed an untouched, wholly pristine burial chamber containing the skeleton of a female between thirteen and fifteen years old. Three terra cotta slab tiles were found with the Latin inscription: LUMENA PAX TE CUM FI.
This proved a mystery, as the tiles arranged in this way made little if any sense. The archaeologists, however, were familiar with this phenomenon, as Christian burials were often done hurriedly in the years of persecution. (it was also possible that the person who arranged the tiles was not familiar with Latin.)
When, however, the first tile was placed last, it became clear: the inscription read PAX TECUM FILUMENA (‘Peace be with you, Philomena’).1 Within the chamber that contained her mortal remains, the excavators also found embedded in the cement a small glass phial partially filled with dried blood — indicating that this girl was a martyr for the Faith. The vase had been was meticulously placed inside of an urn. It was noted that the blood glimmered and sparkled, and mysteriously darkened when anyone who was not in a state of grace venerated it.
STATUE OF ST PHILOMENA WITH HER ATTRIBUTES: Inscribed onto her tomb were the insignia of a lily and a palm – ancient Christian symbols of virginity and martyrdom. Also, an anchor, a scourging whip and two arrows pointing in opposite directions, one curved which suggested fire — all symbolic of the sufferings this girl endured for the Lord. PHOTO BY J.D. Mahlknecht
THE PRIEST FROM MUGNANO: Philomena’s relics remained in Rome until the year 1805 when Canon Francis de Lucia of Mugnano, a small town near Pompeii and Herculaneum, visited Rome with the intention of obtaining relics of a Saint for his private chapel. He was supported in this endeavor by the Bishop of Potenza and so was permitted to visit the Treasury of Relics at the Vatican.
When he viewed the relics of St. Philomena, Canon de Lucia described a feeling of exaltation coming over him; he instantly asked for her relics. These were eventually obtained after some trials as it was not usual for a simple priest to be given such important relics. Interestingly, he had become seriously ill during this time and through her intercession he was cured immediately. De Lucia’s was the first miracle attributed to St. Philomena and others quickly followed; a woman who had suffered from an incurable illness was healed after asking for St. Philomena's intercession and other cures followed as well.
Once he was granted Philomena’s precious remains, Canon de Lucia took them to Naples, where they were enclosed within a statue of the Saint. On August 10 (note this date) 1805 St. Philomena's relics were brought to Mugnano, where they remain to the present day.
TABERNACLE & INLAID MARBLE ALTAR at the shrine of St Philomena in Mugnano, Italy.
THE SHRINE AT MUGNANO
When the relics arrived, the effects felt by the townspeople of Mugnano were instantaneous. In his Relazione istorica della traslazione del sagro corpo di s. Filomena da Roma a Mugnano del Cardinale, written in 1833, Canon De Lucia recounted that wonders accompanied the arrival of the relics in his church, among them a statue that exuded a liquid continuously for three days.
A soaking rain fell on parched Mugnano after a long drought. An incapacitated lawyer confined to his room had himself brought to the place where her relics were and came home completely healed. An aristocratic woman with a malignant tumor on her hand had St. Philomena's relic placed on it; her physician noted the following day that it vanished without a trace.
However, it was the cure of one individual suffering from a particular malady that would ensure St. Philomena's canonization.
Pauline Jaricot’s Journey
Frenchwoman Pauline Jaricot was a wealthy and devout Catholic who used the riches her family had amassed to found three separate Associations: The Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Association of the Holy Childhood, and the Living Rosary. This last group would help ensure she would be affiliated with St. Philomena.
In March 1835 in France she was afflicted with a serious illness that rendered her near death. She longed to make the journey to St. Philomena's Shrine, but such a trip seemed impossible for one so incapacitated, especially over the snow-laden Alpine passes. Incredibly, she made the trip despite this, aided by members of the Living Rosary; nevertheless she nearly perished along the way. For two days she lay unconscious; when she awoke she knew that death was imminent and that she would probably die far from both home and Rome.
However, in one of the passes in the Alps, a miracle occurred; a beautiful young child appeared from nowhere, and presented Pauline with a white rose which had the sweetest scent, smiling knowingly the whole time. The child vanished and the guides were astounded, not the least because roses do not grow in the icy Alps at that time of the year. This miracle gave strength and encouragement to Pauline, who was inspired to continue her trek.
Finally, after a serious relapse in Loreto she finally arrived in the Eternal City where the nuns of the Sacred Heart received her with great joy. Her condition still critical, the nuns feared she would not survive to meet the then- reigning Pontiff, Gregory XVI. The Pope, having heard of Pauline's condition, made haste to meet her, as she was well known for her support of the Church. He thanked her and asked her to pray for him when she got to Heaven. Pauline consented to his request but she also made Pope Gregory XVI promise that when she was cured of her condition and came back to the Vatican that he would continue the final inquiry into St. Philomena's Cause. The Pope agreed to this, though he was convinced they would never see her alive again.
A few months later, to the delight of the townspeople, a partially-recovered Pauline Jaricot returned to Mugnano and St. Philomena's Shrine. The next morning was August 10 –St. Philomena's Feast Day – and there Pauline received the Eucharist near Philomena’s relics. After a short burst of pain, the nearly-unthinkable happened; Pauline Jaricot was cured! The crowds were exuberant at her cure, shouting the praises of St. Philomena and Pauline Jaricot. After staying in Mugnano to give thanks to the Saint, Pauline departed, taking a relic of the Saint with her as she made her way back to Rome.
Needless to say, His Holiness Pope Gregory XVI was astounded to see her not only alive, but healed. He had a chapel built in St. Philomena's honor at her request and bade Pauline to stay in Rome for one year in order to validate the miracle. When Pauline finally returned to France, Pope Gregory XVI kept his word. Eventually, the Sacred Congregation of Rites investigated the case and gave a favorable report of her two miracles. Two years later in 1837, Pope Gregory XVI issued a decree authorizing the public cultus of St. Philomena.
Who was Philomena?
Because of the miracles attributed to this Saint, questions arose in the minds of many: who exactly was this girl? When did she live? How did she die? The answers would come as a result of private revelations to three individuals in different parts of Italy. The most well-known was Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù, a Dominican Tertiary in Naples. The other two visionaries were a priest and an historian.
Popes Devoted to St Philomena: Many popes have venerated St. Philomena, with several visiting her Shrine in tiny Mugnano:
- Pius VII (1800-1823) donated the body of St. Philomena to Mugnana.
- Leo XII (1823-1829) on the 7th of December 1827, he stated: “She is a great Saint!”
- Gregory XVI (1831-1846) donated to the Sanctuary of St. Philomena a precious medallion with his effigy, a silver lamp with golden decorations and a golden chalice.
- Pius IX (1846-1878) was cured of his epilepsy by the intercession of the Saint. When he was Bishop of Imola his secretary, Don Joseph Stella, was cured in 1834 by intercession of St. Philomena.
- Leo XIII (1878-1903) He came in pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Mugnano when he was still Archbishop of Benevento. In 1883, he approved the use of a red and white cord in honor of the Saint; six years later he granted the title of Archconfraternity (solely to France) to the Work of St. Philomena. In 1902 he celebrated Mass in the Roman Catacombs of Priscilla, on the first centenary of the finding of her body. He also sent two gifts to the Sanctuary in Mugnano: in 1888 a pastoral and on May 25, 1902, on the centenary of the finding of her relics, a wonderful missal.
- St Pius X (1903-1914) proclaimed the Curate of Ars ‘Blessed’ on the first centenary of the translation of St. Philomena’s body from Rome to Mugnano. In 1912, he extended to the whole Church the Archconfraternity of St. Philomena: the highest tribute from a pope to a great Saint.
Philomena and the Saints
Saints of the 19th and 20th centuries have been devoted to St Philomena, including St. Peter Julian Eymard, St. Peter Chanel, St. Anthony Mary Claret, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, St. Euphrasia Pelletier, St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, St. John Nepomucene Neumann, Blessed Anna Maria Taigi and Ven. Pauline Jaricot. St Damien of Molokai, who had strong devotion to Philomena, named his church at Kalawao Hawaii in honor of her.
Philomena and the Cure' of Ars
But the one who had the greatest devotion to St. Philomena was probably St. John Marie Vianney, aka the Cure' of Ars. In her Shrine in Mugnano there is a statue of the Cure' of Ars with St. Philomena.
Pauline Jaricot “introduced” the Cure' of Ars to St. Philomena. The simple Cure’ from the south of France was so impressed with her story that he made St. Philomena a part of his daily devotion. Someone once asked the Curè: “Is it true, Monsieur le Curè, that Saint Philomena obeys you?” to which the holy priest replied, “And why not, since every day God Himself obeys me at the altar?”
The Cure reported that ‘a perfect understanding existed’ between he and St. Philomena and that he ‘perpetually felt’ her presence. He addressed her by name as he would a good friend and always promoted devotion to her for all needs, spiritual and temporal.
The Cure’ could often be heard saying, “My children, St. Philomena has great power with God, and she has, moreover, a kind heart; let us pray to her with confidence. Her virginity and generosity in embracing her heroic martyrdom have rendered her so agreeable to God that He will never refuse her anything that she asks for us.” It is said that the Curè did everything for her and St. Philomena did everything for him.
There has been some confusion about the status of St. Philomena. On February 14, 1961 the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Rome issued an instruction from Pope John XXIII which removed St. Philomena from the then-current liturgical calendars; her Feast was never on the general Roman Calendar. However, this does not mean devotion to her is somehow forbidden; it only means that her situation has returned to where it was before 1837. She is a canonized Saint, and her relics (shown here) remain at Mugnano.
Today, St Philomena’s devotees hail from around the world. As for the locals in Mugnano and the surrounding area – close to the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum – they remain proud of their Saint. When this author visited Philomena’s Shrine in April 2015, a nearby gas station attendant's face lit up when he learned we were headed there. With a broad smile on his weathered face, he eagerly provided directions to the Shrine.
St. Philomena continues to intercede for those devoted to her to this day.2 She is a patron of babies, children and teenagers and also of the impossible, along with St. Jude and St. Rita of Cascia. It is said that when she is about to answer your prayers she playfully announces this by knocking three times.
St. Philomena, ora pro nobis!
A Private Revelation: The Trials of St. Philomena
A GLIMPSE INTO THE ANCIENT ROMAN WORLD OF ST PHILOMENA: In the late 3rd century AD, the Emperor Diocletian initiated the last and most vicious Roman persecution of the Christians. He was especially infamous for having Christians pierced with arrows (such as St. Sebastian) and for tying anchors around their necks and having them tossed into water.
In the story reported by the visionary Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù (1799–1875), a Dominican tertiary hear an account of Philomena’s sufferings under Diocletian. (Editor’s Note: Catholics are not bound to believe private revelations. They are considered to be useful to know and food for thought.)
“My dear Sister, I am the daughter of a Prince who governed a small state in Greece. My mother is also of royal blood. My parents were without children. They were idolaters. They continually offered sacrifices and prayers to their false gods.
A doctor from Rome named Publius lived in the palace in the service of my father. This doctor professed Christianity. Seeing the affliction of my parents, by the impulse of the Holy Ghost, he spoke to them of Christianity, and promised to pray for them if they consented to receive Baptism. The grace which accompanied his words enlightened their understanding and triumphed over their will. They became Christians and obtained the long desired happiness that Publius had assured them as the reward of their conversion. At the moment of my birth, they gave me the name of “Lumena,” an allusion to the light of Faith of which I had been, as it were, the fruit. The day of my Baptism they called me “Filumena,” or “Daughter of Light,” because on that day I was born to the Faith. The affection which my parents bore me was so great that they had me always with them.
It was on this account that they took me to Rome on a journey that my father was obliged to make on the occasion of an unjust war with which he was threatened by the haughty Diocletian. I was then thirteen years old. On our arrival in the capital of the world, we proceeded to the palace of the Emperor and were admitted for an audience. As soon as Diocletian saw me, his eyes were fixed upon me. He appeared to be pre-possessed in this manner during the entire time that my father was stating with animated feelings everything that could serve for his defense.
As soon as Father had ceased to speak, the Emperor desired him to be disturbed no longer, to banish all fear, to think only of living in happiness. These are the Emperor’s words, ‘I shall place at your disposal all the force of the Empire. I ask only one thing, that is the hand of your daughter.’ My father, dazzled with an honor he was far from expecting, willingly acceded on the spot to the proposal of the Emperor.
When we returned to our own dwelling, Father and Mother did all they could to induce me to yield to Diocletian’s wishes and theirs. I cried, ‘Do you wish, that for the love of a man, I should break the promise I have made to Jesus Christ? My virginity belongs to him. I can no longer dispose of it.’
‘But you were young then, too young,’ answered my father, ‘to have formed such an engagement.’ He joined the most terrible threats to the command that he gave me to accept the hand of Diocletian. The grace of my God rendered me invincible, and my father, not being able to make the Emperor relent, in order to disengage himself from the promise he had given, was obliged by Diocletian to bring me to the Imperial Chamber.
I had to withstand for some time beforehand a new attack from my father’s anger. My mother, uniting her efforts to his, endeavored to conquer my resolution. Caresses, threats, everything was employed to induce me to compliance. At last, I saw both of my parents fall at my knees and say to me with tears in their eyes, ‘My child have pity on your father, your mother, your country, our country, our subjects.’
‘No! No,’ I answered them. ‘My virginity, which I have vowed to God, comes before everything, before you, before my country. My kingdom is heaven.’
My words plunged them into despair and they brought me before the Emperor, who on his part did all in his power to win me. But his promises, his allurements, his threats, were equally useless. He then flew into a violent fit of anger and, influenced by the Devil, had me cast into one of the prisons of the palace, where he had me loaded with chains. Thinking that pain and shame would weaken the courage with which my Divine Spouse inspired me, he came to see me every day. After several days, the Emperor issued an order for my chains to be loosed, that I might take a small portion of bread and water. He renewed his attacks, some of which would have been fatal to purity had it not been for the grace of God.
The defeats which he always experienced were for me the preludes to new tortures. Prayer supported me. I did not cease to recommend myself to Jesus and his most pure Mother. My captivity had lasted thirty-seven days, when, in the midst of a heavenly light, I saw Mary holding the Divine Son in her arms.
‘My daughter,’ she said to me, ‘three days more of prison and after forty days you shall leave this state of pain.’
Such happy news made my heart beat with joy, but as the Queen of Angels had added that I should quit my prison, to sustain, in frightful torments a combat far more terrible than those preceding, I fell instantly from joy to the most cruel anguish; I thought it would kill me.
‘Have courage, my child,’ Mary then said to me; ‘are you unaware of the love of predilection that I bear for you? The name, which you received in baptism, is the pledge of it for the resemblance which it has to that of my Son and to mine. You are called Lumena, as your Spouse is called Light, Star, Sun, as I myself am called Aurora, Star, the Moon in the fullness of its brightness, and Sun. Fear not, I will aid you. Now nature, whose weakness humbles you, asserts its law. In the moment of combat, grace will come to lend you its force, and your Angel, who was also mine, Gabriel, whose name expresses strength, will come to your aid. I will recommend you especially to his care, as the well beloved among my children.’
These words of the Queen of virgins gave me courage again, and the vision disappeared, leaving my prison filled with a celestial perfume. I experienced a joy out of this world. Something indefinable.
What the Queen of Angels had prepared me for was soon experienced. Diocletian, despairing of bending me, decided on public chastisement to offend my virtue. He condemned me to be stripped and scourged like the Spouse I preferred to him. These are his horrifying words.
‘Since she is not ashamed to prefer to an Emperor like me, a malefactor condemned to an infamous death by his own people, she deserves that my justice shall treat her as he was treated.’
The prison guards hesitated to unclothe me entirely but they did tie me to a column in the presence of the great men of the court. They lashed me with violence until I was bathed in blood. My whole body felt like one open wound, but I did not faint.
The tyrant had me dragged back to the dungeon, expecting me to die. I hoped to join my heavenly Spouse. Two angels, shining with light, appeared to me in the darkness. They poured a soothing balm on my wounds, bestowing on me a vigor I did not have before the torture.
When the Emperor was informed by the change that had come over me, he had me brought before him. He viewed me with a greedy desire and tried to persuade me that I owed my healing and regained vigor to Jupiter, another god that he, the Emperor, had sent to me. He attempted to impress me with his belief that Jupiter desired me to be Empress of Rome. Joining to these seductive words promises of great honor, including the most flattering words, Diocletian tried to caress me. Fiendishly, he attempted to complete the work of Hell which he had begun. The Divine Spirit to whom I am indebted for constancy in preserving my purity seemed to fill me with light and knowledge and to all the proofs which I gave of the solidity of our Faith, neither Diocletian nor his courtiers could find an answer.
Then, the frenzied Emperor dashed at me, commanding a guard to chain an anchor around my neck and bury me deep in the waters of the Tiber. The order was executed. I was cast into the water, but God sent me two angels who unfastened the anchor. It fell into the river mud, where it remains no doubt to the present time. The angels transported me gently in full view of the multitude upon the riverbank. I came back unharmed, not even wet, after being plunged with the heavy anchor.
When a cry of joy rose from the debauchers on the shore, and so many embraced Christianity by proclaiming their belief in my God, Diocletian attributed my preservation to secret magic. Then the Emperor had me dragged through the streets of Rome and shot with a shower of arrows. My blood flowed, but I did not faint. Diocletian thought that I was dying and commanded the guards to carry me back to the dungeon. Heaven honored me with a new favor there. I fell into a sweet sleep, and I found myself, on awaking, perfectly cured.
Diocletian learned about it. ‘Well, then,’ he cried in a fit of rage, ‘let her be pierced with sharp darts a second time, and let her die in that torture.’ They hastened to obey him. Again, the archers bent their bows. They gathered all their strength, but the arrows refused to second their intentions. The Emperor was present. In a rage, he called me a magician, and thinking that the action of fire could destroy the enchantment, ordered the darts to be made in a furnace and directed against my heart. He was obeyed, but these darts, after having passed through a part of the space which they were to cross to come to me, took a quite contrary direction and returned to strike those by whom they had been hurled. Six of the archers were killed by them. Several among them renounced paganism, and the people began to render public testimony to the power of God that protected me.
These murmurs and acclamations infuriated the tyrant. He determined to hasten my death by ordering my head to be cut off. My soul took flight towards my heavenly Spouse, who placed me, with the crown of virginity and the palm of martyrdom, in a distinguished place among the elect. The day that was so happy for me and saw me enter into glory was Friday, the third hour after mid-day, the same hour that saw my Divine Master expire.”
“Dear Sister, August the 10th was the day of my rest, my triumph, my birth into Heaven, my entering into the possession of such eternal goods as the human mind cannot possibly imagine. That is why my Heavenly Spouse disposed, by His most high decrees that my coming to Mugnano should be on the day which had seen my coming to Heaven! He prepared so many circumstances which should make my arrival at Mugnano glorious and triumphant; giving joy to all the people, even though the priest who brought me had absolutely decided that my translation should take place on the fifth of the month very quietly in his own house. My omnipotent Spouse impeded him with so many obstacles that the priest, although he did all he could to carry out his plan, could not do so. And so it came about that the said translation was made on the tenth, the day of my feast in Heaven.”
1 The reference to “Lumena” — the name given to her at birth, “Light” — and then at Baptism, “Fi Lumena”, “Daughter of Light”, may explain the arrangement of the tiles found at the grave (“Lumena”, her first given name, was on the first tile).
2 The author encourages all to ask for her intercession, especially around her Feast Days[i] and to say her chaplet and even join her Archconfraternity.