By Rebekah Hanlin
Like many Catholics, I had a vague acquaintance with this little saint. Saint Philomena was catalogued as one of those early-church saints, tucked into a closet in the backlogs of my memory. Oh those elusive early-church saints, the ones whose dates are just educated guesses. The ones that are almost always martyred by some horrific means. No records, no images – just one hell of a story.
St. Philomena’s story, however, seems to begin long after her death. Because for over 1600 years, there was no St. Philomena to speak of.
Philomena was cloaked in the dark of the catacombs for centuries. There, among the rows of the nameless and forgotten martyrs, nestled in a cold sanctuary of stone and anonymity – rested little Philomena.
It wasn’t until 1802, when a worker’s pickaxe hit her tomb, and a crack of light spilled across her stone revealing the words “LUMENA”, “PAXTE”, and “CUM FI”. Later arranged and translated by scholars to read “Peace be upon you Philomena”. Here was the first spark, the awakening of St. Philomena.
Her remains were meticulously collected and brought to the Vatican. Among them was a small vial containing dried fragments of her blood – an early indicator of her martyrdom. (Early martyrs lucky enough to have a Christian burial were left with a vial of their blood to distinguish them as martyrs.) After a three-years stay at the Vatican, an eager priest, who believed the “virgin martyr” had cured his fever, brought her remains back with him to his parish in Mugnano, Italy. From the moment she was placed in the parish, a swarm of miracles began to circulate.
Philomena made such a splash with ecclesiastically-sound cures and miracles that a large following was emerging. Pope Gregory XVI, who had dubbed her “Thaumaturga” or Wonder Worker, officially declared the sanctity of her sainthood, granted her a feast day, and approbation of liturgical cultus. All, without any historical account of her earthly life.
A growing number of devotees were amassing to a saint that no one knew anything about – until, it seems, God decided the world should know her better. On three separate occasions, in three different locations, three individuals asked St. Philomena to reveal her story to them. She appeared to all of them, with an identical narrative. She told each of the three the story of a young princess who had consecrated herself to Jesus, and at 13 years of age, was willing to exchange her life for its promise. Her story is powerful and heartbreaking, you can read more about it here.
Over the next two centuries, St. Philomena would grace the faith of many more popes, saints, thousands of Catholics, and even royal families.
Despite the epic backstory of St. Philomena, it is truly eclipsed by the more wondrous accounts of her persistent intercession. Somehow her earthly life seems insignificant, like a footnote to a much larger venture. Her life on earth served only as the means to an elevated appointment in Heaven, as her subsequent efforts yield a glimpse into God’s industry.
For me, this is something that sets St. Philomena apart. How captivating this anonymous wonder worker is – silently milling about behind the scenes. She brought miracles to the world and converted hardened hearts all from behind a veil of obscurity. She never revealed herself until asked. She is quiet and industrious, entirely essential, but ever so humble.
What a saint for our time. A time when our faith as Catholics is continuously assaulted by an ever-expanding secular world, when occasion is monopolized by narcissism, when life is pressured to be documented instead of lived, and fleeting emotions are perceived to be paramount to truth. In a time of impudence, the world needs a saint of discretion.
Hers is a story of quietude and priority. A prompt to focus our hearts on the end goal. Because, eventually, our earthly life will also become only a footnote. A long forgotten, yet unchangeable past to our, (hopefully) glorious present with God.