Philomena, St., The Legend of

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In 1802 archeologists unearthed a tomb in the Catacomb of St. Priscilla. The remains appeared to belong to a young woman of the second or third century. Nearby were tiles painted in red: LUMENA PAXTE CUM FI, with images of a whip, arrows, anchors, a lily, and palm. They reconstructed this as PAX TECUM FIILUMENA, "Peace [be] with you, Filumena." The tiles were thought to have sealed the original tomb. The images were taken to be instruments of a martyr's suffering and emblems of her purity and heavenly victory.

Nothing was known of any historical Philomena. Eminent archeologists insisted that the tiles came from a nearby tomb. Despite these efforts to dampen the enthusiasm of those who declared these the bones of a martyr, within two decades there was a flourishing cult of Philomena, a detailed biography, and reports of many miracles. In 1961 the Congregation of Rites struck her feast from the Roman Calendar for lack of historical evidence of her existence, along with that of St. Christopher. The rise of Philomena's cult and her continuing veneration into the twenty-first century need to be read against the background of the duel between traditional religiosity and modern rationalism.

The cult of St. Philomena arose and spread in this environment. Religious orders including the newly reestablished Jesuits appreciated Philomena as model of Christian perseverance in a time not unlike the period of persecution by the ancient Roman empire. Bishops who visited Rome in the 19th century often brought home relics as this was a period when many catacombs were being excavated. In 1805, Father Francesco di Lucia of Mugnano del Cardenale petitioned for the relics. After being denied them, he was cured of a fever. He attributed his cure to Philomena. After much persistence he was granted the relics and enshrined them in his home town in 1832.

Reports of miracles during and after the relics were brought to the shrine advanced the cult. Sister Maria Louisa, Superior General of the Sisters of Sorrow of Mary (d.1875), recorded visions of Philomena whose biography stressed chastity and resistence to persecution. In 1832 di Lucia recorded the biography, the story of the discovery of the relics, and many miracles, along with an essay on chastity. Eminent Catholics supported her cause including John Vianney, Madeleine Sophie Barat, Pierre-Julien Eymard, and Pauline Jaricot. In 1855 the Congregation of Rites established a feast day (Sept. 9), Mass, and Office for her.

Even when her feast was officially suppressed, her devotees continued to ask for and attribute cures to her intercession. Her omission from the calendar was not a prohibition of private devotion, but it does mean that the Congregation of Rites found insufficient evidence regarding her to mandate a place in the calendar or to allow the naming of official Catholic institutions for her.

Bibliography: f. di lucia, Relazione istorica della translazione del sacro corpo e miracoli di santa Filomena vergine e martire da Roma a Mugnano del Cardenale (1834). a. butler, The Lives of the Saints, rev. ed. h. thurston and d. attwater, 4 v. (New York 1956) 3:299301. Acta Apostolicae Sedis 53 (1961) 174. s. la salvia, "L'inventione di un culto: S. Filomena de taumaturga a guerriera della fede," in Culto de santi e classi sociali in età preindustriale (1984).

[m. a. tilley]