Born: early centuries of the Church
Died: around the age of 13, sometime during the fourth century
Patronage: children, youth, babies, infants, priests, lost causes, sterility, virgins
What’s in a Name?
When one of our daughters was confirmed a couple of years ago, my husband and I encouraged her – as we had our other children – to choose a saint’s name. Being confirmed, after all, is a big deal. It’s the time when you begin to make the faith your own and become an adult in the eyes of the Church. That’s quite the tall order for a young person – or anyone, for that matter. The Catechism tells us that Confirmation strengthens us and “brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace.”1 But why would we not continue the long-standing tradition of the Church and ask for the help of the saints? Having saints accompany us on our journey of faith is akin to having friends support us through the ups and downs of life. What’s more, the saints intercede and pray for us from heaven, and inspire us by their example.
Powerful with God
Now, truth be told, I don’t think our daughter put that much thought into who she would choose. She had read a book about a saint that had piqued her interest. The book, which described a young girl around my daughter’s age who was martyred in Rome during the reign of Diocletian, was one that her brother had gotten from a priest friend. I had only vaguely heard of St. Philomena, but it struck me as a bit odd that a priest would have a devotion to her. In my mind, it seemed that priests would more easily identify with one of the apostles, whom Jesus appointed to lead the Church, or with St. Paul, who was a gifted speaker.
Little did I know that numerous popes, bishops, saints, and mystics had held this little saint in great esteem, depending on her intercession for countless miracles. In fact, Pope Gregory XVI called St. Philomena the “wonder-worker” of the nineteenth century and declared her “powerful with God.”2 St. John Vianney attributed all of his miracles to her intercession, saying “I have never asked for anything through the intercession of my Little Saint without having been answered.”3 Needless to say, my curiosity was also piqued, and I wanted to know more about this powerful, little saint. What I discovered shed light not only on the courage and determination of young martyrs, but also how God works to make them known.
St. Philomena lived in the first centuries of the Church, yet her existence only came to light in the year 1802. Workers digging in the ancient Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome were excavating one of the oldest sections when they came upon a previously unrecorded tomb. It was sealed with three tiles engraved with various symbols: a palm branch (often used to symbolize martyrdom), arrows, a lily (a symbol of purity or virginity), and an anchor. The tiles also contained the inscription: “LUMENA, PAXTE, CUMFI.” Inside the tomb, a vial of blood was found along with the mortal remains of a young girl determined to be around 12 or 13 years of age.
It was such an important discovery that work was stopped immediately and Vatican officials were notified. Soon thereafter, the Vatican custodian of holy relics deemed the tomb to be that of a virgin-martyr named “Filumena” (Philomena in English) and rendered the inscription as, “Peace be with you, Filumena.” Unfortunately, no historical records about her could be found, and the little saint may have returned to obscurity had it not been for divine intervention. God obviously had other plans.
Shortly after the discovery of the tomb, the relics of St. Philomena were entrusted to a parish in the town of Mugnano, near Naples. The priest was, as he described it, looking to “revitalize” his parish. But what happened was nothing short of miraculous. Many of those who came in contact with the relics or with the oil from the lamp burning beside the tomb were healed of all types of disease and illnesses. Other miracles also took place, and the fame of St. Philomena soon spread throughout the country, reaching Pope Gregory XVI himself.
Yet almost as miraculous was the supernatural way in which Philomena’s story came to light. During this time, at least three separate people living in different parts of Italy began receiving historical details about the background, life and martyrdom of St. Philomena. From these private revelations, the world came to know much more about her: how the young princess and her parents became Christians, how she had given herself to Jesus as her Divine Spouse, and how she was tortured by the Emperor Diocletian when she refused his hand in marriage. For over a month, he imprisoned Philomena and bound her with chains. When she wouldn’t relent, he used other methods: he had her stripped and scourged, tied an anchor to her neck and threw her into the Tiber, and repeatedly shot her with arrows. All the while, she was consoled with visions of Mary holding the Christ-child in her arms and was strengthened by the Holy Virgin’s words. Alas, Philomena was finally put to death, beheaded by the Roman emperor.
Communing with the Saints
It’s easy to see why St. Philomena is enjoying a resurgence in popular devotion – a spiritual comeback, if you will. Young people today are bombarded with confusing and often unhealthy messages about their bodies and their sexuality. They are searching for models of Christian purity, like St. Philomena, who said yes to Christ rather than succumbing to the temptations of the world. Through her intercession and example, we can be strengthened to do likewise.
If the practice of choosing a Confirmation saint has fallen out of favour, I don’t think it’s because young people have rejected it. More often than not, it’s because parishes and/or parents haven’t encouraged it. In an effort to “modernize” the Church, we sometimes want to dismiss certain traditions as old-fashioned or unnecessary.
But it seems that many young people today are looking for ways to connect to their Catholic heritage, to the Church founded on and by Christ over 2000 years ago. More and more, they are embracing and adopting the old ways – preferring traditional hymns, wearing scapulars, participating in Eucharistic adoration, and honouring the role of the saints, for example. Young people are the future of the Church. We must never dismiss their ideas or discount their contributions to building up the Church and society. Rather, it is through their words and witness that the Church will be revitalized and renewed, and the next generation of saints will be raised up.
St. Philomena, pray for us!
“Therefore I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10
– Kelley Holy
1 CCC, 1303.
2 Mark Miravalle, It is Time to Meet St. Philomena (Goleta, CA: Queenship Publishing Company, 2007), 19.
3 Ibid, 1.
Other background and historical information obtained from the following sources:
“Diocletian,” New Advent [online encyclopedia]; available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05007b.htm; Internet; accessed 3 August 2014.
“History of Saint Philomena,” Sanctuary of Saint Philomena; available from http://www.philomena.us/; Internet; accessed 4 August 2014.