“I am very saddened by all that is being written about [Saint Philomena]. How can such things be possible? How can they not see that the great argument in favor of devotion to St. Philomena is the Curé of Ars? Through her, in her name, by means of her intercession, he obtained countless graces, continual wonders. His devotion to her was well known by everyone; he recommended her constantly. We read the name, Filumena, on her tomb. Whether it be her own name, or whether she has another, what does it matter? It remains, it is certain, that the soul which animated those sacred remains was a pure and holy soul that the Church has declared to be the soul of a virgin and martyr. That soul was so beloved by God, so pleasing to the Holy Spirit, that she has obtained the most wonderful graces for those who have had recourse to her intercession.”[i]
--Pope Saint Pius X, 1907
I have recently heard statements among some of my friends questioning the reality of the early martyr of the Church Saint Philomena. I did a quick internet search and, sure enough, there are plenty of people, even experts in the field of archaeology, who question or even flatly deny the existence of this early church martyr. In fact I had a hard time finding anyone from a non-religious standpoint defending her existence. So, I researched this question. I researched if for quite a while, spending hours looking at documents, stories, blogs, and writings. Putting all private revelation aside, I have concluded that those who deny the existence of Saint Philomena are wrong, and most of these people do not understand the implications of what they are affirming with the denial of this Saint’s existence. They are in effect denying the existence of miracles, because it was the miracles, wrought through Saint Philomena’s intercession, which ultimately led to her being celebrated within the Catholic Church as a Saint and Roman Martyr. I will defend this position with the following points: first, the initial discovery and the miraculous cure of venerable Pauline Jericot. Second, Saint John Marie Vianney’s devotion to this saint. Third, we will delve into the question of the suppression of her feast by the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Finally, we will discuss the greater implications of affirming or denying this saint as a Saint of the Catholic Church.[ii]
In 1802, an untouched grave was found in the Catacomb of Saint Priscilla along the Via Salaria. It was a rare discovery, for most of the graves had been opened in the preceding centuries to transfer the relics. The tomb was sealed by three brick tiles, upon which were engraved the symbols of a lily, a palm, arrows, and an anchor. The palm was the sign of martyrdom, and the lily was the sign of purity. There were also words engraved upon the three stones, which read (in the order found): LUMENA, PAXTE, CUMFI. An examination of the bones revealed that the bones were that of a young girl, around 12-13 years old. Along with the bones was found a vial of dried blood, which commonly accompanied the burial of early martyrs.
Soon after their discovery the relics were moved to Rome. A priest happened to be visiting Rome at that time, looking for relics for his parish in Mugnano, Italy. The pastor of Mugnano asked for and received the relics of this new martyr, and on the journey back to Mugnano, the first public miracle of Saint Philomena was performed. “A woman present who had a cancerous ulcer, and who was scheduled for amputation the next day, was instantly cured of both cancer and the spreading gangrene when a relic of St. Philomena was placed over her sores.”[iii] The relics of Saint Philomena from this point on are decorated with countless, extraordinary miracles recorded by many sources, and her fame spread far and wide. The most famous miracle performed through the intercession of Saint Philomena, however, is the healing of venerable Pauline Jericot in 1834.
Pauline Jericot was a resident of France, and was a close friend of Saint John Marie Vianney, the Cure d’Ars. In the summer of 1834, she became suddenly ill with a heart disease, which confined her to her bed. She undertook a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Philomena after consulting with Father Vianney, and she stopped to see Pope Gregory XIV on the way. Pauline asked Pope Gregory during this visit if she were cured by Philomena, would he look into Philomena’s canonization. The pope agreed, but did not believe he would see Ms. Jericot alive again. Pauline Jericot was carried into Mugnano, more dead than alive, on August 8th 1834. Fearing that she would die before a miracle was performed, the people of Mugnano petitioned Philomena, along with Pauline. On August 10th Pauline Jericot was healed, and walked unassisted back to Rome, to the surprise of Pope Gregory. True to his word, the Pope raised Philomena to the state of public veneration, based entirely on the miracles performed through her intercession, on January 13, 1837. Altars and Churches could be built and consecrated in her honor, and a Mass was also granted in her honor. Philomena was now a Saint of the Catholic Church.
This miracle of venerable Pauline Jericot played an undeniable role in Saint John Vianney’s devotion to Saint Philomena, because it was Pauline who brought Father Vianney a relic of Saint Philomena after her cure. Father Vianney built an altar in her honor, as soon as Pope Gregory XIV allowed it. From this point, many historical documents have the Cure giving credit to Saint Philomena for the miracles which happened in his church. The examples are too many to list, but here are two documented incidents: Saint Peter Julian Eymard was healed after being instructed by Saint John Vianney to pray a Novena to Saint Philomena.[iv] A woman named Claudine Raymond came to the Cure because of a throat ailment, and he told her to pray in front of the altar of Saint Philomena. She did so, and was healed immediately.[v] It is an established fact that one of the best known promulgators of devotion to Saint Philomena was Saint John Marie Vianney.
Now, a question that must be addressed in this essay is what the Sacred Congregation of Rites said in regard to Saint Philomena. They removed the feast of Saint Philomena from the calendar based on the lack of historical evidence for her existence. It is very important to note at this point that the Congregation of Rites did not have any ecclesiastical power of any kind. It was only a “liturgical directive”. This directive however left many people confused, and rightfully so. In fact, it left bishops concerned too. Bishop Sebastião Fernandes of Mysore, India, whose cathedral was consecrated in Philomena’s honor, sent a letter to Pope Paul VI in 1964. This correspondence was sent to Mugnano by Bishop Fernandes as follows:
“What must I do for the people in my diocese who are greatly troubled by the decree of the Sacred Congregation regarding St. Philomena?” Paul VI responded, “Do not let it disturb you and do not disturb your people; let devotion to St. Philomena continue as before” (proseguiva come prima)[vi].
These words should be a comfort to those who have faith in the intercession of Saint Philomena, and reinforce the notion that devotion to her has never been officially abolished or suppressed.
Finally, it is important to understand the implications of affirming or denying Saint Philomena as a Saint of the Catholic Church. The first and most notable archaeologist to question the remains of the Saint was Oracio Marucchi, who published a document on the findings of this Saint in 1903. In this document, he said that the name of the Saint, Filumena, could be wrong. He said that the tomb could have been from the early 2nd Century rather than the early 4th century. He also reasons that since there is no historical evidence for her existence, this is plausible proof for her never having existed. What do we have for certain, however? We have the bones of a young girl, we have a grave that shows the marks of martyrdom, and we have more approved miracles coming from the intercession of this saint than most canonized saints of our times. What does it matter if her original name was Philomena or not? Does it matter whether or not we have no historical documents to prove her existence? No! We have papal approval, and we have miracles. The only way to deny the existence of Saint Philomena is to deny that the miracles which catapulted her to public veneration just 35 years after her buiral discovery in Rome. I assure you, venerating Saint Philomena will be most providential for your soul, for she is powerful with God. Saint Philomena, pray for us! For the glory of God, and the salvation of souls, Amen.
[i] Rev. Louis Petit, Messager de sainte Philomène, July 1907, pp. 356-363; Trochu, La “petite sainte,” pp. 141-142.
[ii] A much more thorough analysis of these points is covered in the following site, and I encourage you to visit it in order to find out more about the glorious Saint Philomena: http://www.motherofallpeoples.com/2007/08/it-is-time-to-meet-st-philomena/
[iii] Cf. Msgr. Francis Trochu, La “petite sainte” du Curé d’Ars, Sainte Philomène, vierge et martyre, Librairie Catholique Emmanuel Vitte, Paris, 1929, as found in Magnificat, August, 1998, p. 139.
[iv] Cf. Relation by the Superior General of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters, Messager de Sainte Philomène, January 1897, from Trochu, La “petite sainte,” as found in Magnificat, August, 1998, p. 161.
[v] Mrs. Claudine Raymond, Procès de l’Ordinaire, Vol. II, p. 1459, from Trochu, La “petite sainte,” as found in Magnificat, p. 165.
[vi] Mugnano Archives, 1964.