Saint Philomena

In order to give an overview of who Saint Philomena was.

Saint Philomena Sainte Philomène2

"The little saint for Curé of Ars"

In order to give an overview of who Saint Philomena was, it seems important to look at three aspects : her identification, her biography, and lastly the cult of her personality.

Saint Philomena’s existence

Discovery of her bones and the inscription

In 1802 during the official excavation undertaken under the authority of the Holy See in the catacomb of Priscilla, the bones of a young girl were found in a burial place sealed by three bricks which bore this inscription : “LUMENA / PAX TE / CUM FI”. It is thought that the order of the bricks was reversed by mistake and that the inscription should read : “ PAX TE / CUM FI / LUMENA”, that is : “Peace be with you, Philomena”. Philomena is a name which means “beloved”. The different decorative motifs surrounding her name – in particular the palm and the spears – led to the belief that these were the bones of a martyr from among the early Christians. At that time it was thought that the majority of the bodies found in the Catacombs dated back to the Roman persecutions of the apostolic era.

Difficulty of identification and dating

Several archaeologists (Marucchi – Leclercq) concluded that the bones were most likely those of a deceased person of the 4th century, an epoch during which there were massive numbers of burials in the catacombs and the tombs were sealed with pieces of previous epitaphs found in situ. Msgr Trochu, the biographer of the Holy Curé, demonstrated the weakness of this hypothesis and opted for a previous date closer to the apostolic era. Therefore from the point of view of the historical sciences nothing has been conclusively resolved.
Today one could say that the existence of Saint Philomena has not been proved historically any more or any less than that of other saints who are officially venerated in the Church (as in the case of Saint George, for example). The attestation of scores of miracles and the widespread devotion among many of the faithful and many pastors (in particular that of the Curé of Ars) are not definitive proof from the point of view of historical science. However they encourage us to respect the memory of the person whose bones were discovered two hundred years ago.

Statue Ste Philomène Ste Philomène

Biography of saint Philomena

The account of Dom Francisco di Lucia

The accounts of the life of Saint Philomena have only two recent “sources”, first of all Dom Francisco di Lucia, a priest from Nola in the region of Naples. In 1805 he became the custodian of the relics and in 1824 drafted an “Account”, a sort of “biography” of Saint Philomena, whom he described as a martyr of Diocletian’s persecution in the 4th century. The story he wrote was based solely on the interpretation of the decorative motifs surrounding the inscription on the tomb : thus the virgin martyr is said to have been first pierced by arrows (spears), and then thrown into the Tiber (anchor), before being decapitated by the sword, etc…

The visions of Sister Maria Luigi di Gesù

The most detailed source of the “life story” of Saint Philomena consists of the visions of a Neapolitan nun, Sister Maria Luigi di Gesù, who could have been inspired by Dom Lucia’s book. Dom Lucia himself published in 1833 an “abbreviated account” of her revelations. The book obtained the Imprimatur of the Holy Office (which has since become the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). This does not guarantee the authenticity of the visions but attests that nothing in the text is contrary to the faith or to morals. This “biography” reiterates most of the elements common to the history of the virgin martyrs of the early Christian era. It also inspired the painter Borel to create the frescoes in the interior of the Basilica of Ars. However the transcription of a private revelation incurs no guarantee from the Church.

A provisional interpretation

In 1929 Msgr Trochu, the famous biographer of the Curé of Ars, published a well-researched study about Saint Philomena. The author attempts to answer the objections of Marucchi and Leclercq concerning the identification and dating of the bones. He remains very discreet about the life of Philomena and contents himself with imagining the major stages of her Christian initiation, taking into account the customs of the time : her baptism, confirmation, her consecration in the order of virgins, her martyrdom…. However the main part of his work deals with the cult surrounding the saint.

The cult of saint Philomena

A popular devotion

Thanks to the numerous miracles, popular devotion to Saint Philomena spread very rapidly, especially after 1805 on the occasion of the transfer of her relics to Mugnano (Italy). It was Pauline Jaricot (a woman from Lyon who founded the organisation for the Propagation of the Faith) who, following a pilgrimage and her own healing, brought some relics to the Curé of Ars. From then on the feast day was celebrated in Ars on the 11th August.

Recognition of the cult

In 1837 Pope Gregory XVI authorised public devotion to the saint, first in the shrine of Mugnano, and then in the diocese of Naples. With the necessary indults, permission was given to the parish of Ars, much to the joy of Jean-Marie Vianney. In 1855 a special (proper) Mass and Office were approved by the blessed Pius IX who himself paid a visit to the shrine of Mugnano. Leo XIII and Saint Pius X also bore public witness to their devotion to Saint Philomena, but of course their actions did not commit their infallibility where the historical data about the life and martyrdom of Philomena were concerned.

Peinture Ste Philomène Sainte Philomène2

A prudent reserve

It remains to say that much information of a historical nature is still lacking and neither the miracles nor the devotion of the faithful can make up for this. In addition there is no testimony to be found from the first centuries with regard to any manifestation of devotion to Philomena. This is why, according to the exacting criteria of contemporary historical science, the name of Philomena was not included in the revised version of the Roman Martyrology of 1961. This liturgical decision did not resolve the historical problem nor bring it to a close, but leaves it open in the expectation of more penetrating studies.

By way of a conclusion

At the moment a hypothesis in favour of the historical existence of Philomena is not out of the question. The remains discovered in Rome in 1802 could easily be those of a true member of the elect, whatever her name, her life and the circumstances of her death. Through the increasing number of marvels worked around her relics, God may have willed out of a particular abundance of mercy that she be made known to the world, as is suggested by so many corroborating testimonies.

The Church is a Mother who is prudent for Her children. She regulates with great precaution all that relates to devotion to the saints. She first wishes to make sure of their existence and of the signs of their holiness. She is also the judge of whether to propose them or not as models for public veneration and for imitation by the faithful. For the moment the Church considers it preferable that the devotion to Saint Philomena not be encouraged. This is why, in a spirit of filial obedience, the Shrine of Ars does not organise public celebrations. This is most especially true for the place in which the Church invites us to come and pray to the Holy Curé and in which She gives him to us as the “patron saint of the priests of the whole world”.

Despite this fact the pilgrims of Ars, like the Christians of the entire world, are free to bear witness in private to their devotion towards Saint Philomena, and to pray to God through her intercession. God hears every prayer that is uttered with faith and always responds to the sincerity of a believing heart.

On the request of the Shrine of Ars the Congregation for Divine Worship has taken in hand the case of Saint Philomena, in close collaboration with the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. We are awaiting the conclusions of the ad hoc Commission. In advance, in filial obedience we accept the judgement of the Church where the existence of Saint Philomena is concerned, and will obey her wise decisions concerning veneration of her as a saint.