Q: In our parish church there is a shrine of St Philomena and I know the Curé of Ars, St John Vianney, had devotion to her. But a friend of mine says the Church no longer recognises her. What can you tell me about her?
First of all, St Philomena was an early Christian martyr who definitely existed and who has been recognised officially by the Church.
What do we know about her? To tell the truth, not much as regards her life, when she lived, what she did, or even the circumstances of her martyrdom.
What we do know is that on 25 May 1802, workers who were excavating in the ancient catacomb of St Priscilla in Rome came upon a very well preserved shelf tomb sealed with terracotta slabs, suggesting that the person buried there was either a noble or a great martyr.
Inside the tomb were the remains of a girl of about twelve or thirteen along with a vial of her dried blood.
Nearby were three tiles painted in red which made up the words Pax tecum, Filumena, or “Peace be with you, Philomena.” On the tiles were images of a whip, arrows, an anchor, a lily and a palm, indicating martyrdom and virginity.
The remains were taken to the Treasury of Rare Collections of Christian Antiquity in the Vatican, where they were soon forgotten by the public, especially since there was no record of a virgin martyr named Philomena. Three years later, in 1805, a priest from Naples, Don Francesco di Lucia, on a visit to Rome with his newly appointed Bishop, was suddenly struck with spiritual joy when he passed by her remains and he asked to be allowed to take them and place them in a shrine in her honour in his church in Mugnano, near Naples.
Although the request was first refused, the priest was cured of a fever, which he attributed to Philomena, and he was later given the relics. The shrine was opened in 1832.
Even before the shrine was completed, favours, graces and “miracles” began to take place through prayer to Philomena. They increased in number to such an extent that the martyr was soon given the title “Philomena, Powerful with God”.
In 1837, only thirty-five years after her remains were found, Pope Gregory XVI canonised Philomena as a saint. It was the first time in the history of the Church that someone was canonised solely on the basis of her powerful intercession, since nothing was known of her except her name and the evidence of her martyrdom.
Given the many favours granted through her intercession, St Philomena became known as a patron of hopeless or impossible cases, like St Jude and St Rita of Cascia. She is especially renowned for favours involving the conversion of sinners, the return to the Sacraments, expectant mothers, problems with children, unhappiness in the home, sterility, etc.
Many of the saints had great devotion to St Philomena. Among them, as you mention in your question, was St John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, who called her the New Light of the Church Militant. Other saints included St Peter Julian Eymard, St Peter Chanel, St Anthony Mary Claret and St Madeleine Sophie Barat.
Popes too had devotion to St Philomena. Pope Leo XII (1823-1829) had personal devotion to her and gave permission for altars and churches to be erected in her honour. Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846), who canonised her, gave her the title “Patroness of the Living Rosary”.
Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) proclaimed her “Patroness of the Children of Mary”, and Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) made two pilgrimages to her shrine before his election to the papacy. After becoming Pope, he approved the Confraternity of St Philomena, later raising it to the status of an Archconfraternity, with its headquarters still located at her shrine in Mugnano.
In 1855, the Congregation of Rites approved the texts for a Mass and Office to be celebrated on 9 September.
While the feast was removed from the universal calendar in 1961 due to lack of historical evidence, any priest may celebrate a Mass in her honour and the faithful are free to have devotion to her and to entrust their prayers to her, especially the most difficult cases.