Daughter of Light

Not Easily Killed

The lives of the Catholic saints are generally accepted canonically as having been lived, roughly in the way tradition ascribes to that saint.  Recent scholarship, however, has called into question not only the “saintliness” of certain martyrs or other Catholic icons, but can sometimes cast doubt whether or not that person – long accepted as a venerated person – ever even drew breath on the planet.

Such doubtful saints, those whose very existence has been either verified as false or dubious at best, include among them some of the Catholic Church’s most beloved and (depending upon era in history) among the most popular.  The apocryphal St. Valentine – today still a household name – has been removed from his venerated place by a more intellectual Church.  No one person, with the attributes of the alleged St. Valentine, could be confirmed (there is more than one candidate to lay claim to the name “Valentine”).  Secondly, and more horrific from a “Christian” perspective, the activities for which St. Valentine extends his patronage – love matches and love-making – are leftovers from a pagan festival that celebrated sexuality and fertility.  Paganism, of course, is bad for Christianity.

There are other saints whose lives were once clearly recalled, whose feast days were remembered, and whose names were on the lips of the devout. Their stories are filled withSt. PhilomenaCredit: public domain intrigue, the human passions, and tragedy.  In this group of virgin martyrs are once very popular female saints, among them St. Dymphna (whose flight from a forced marriage to her obsessive father led to her death in Belgium) and St. Barbara of the Tower.  It is unclear today, however, if Dymphna (whose story contains elements of another tale and may be complete fiction) and Barbara (whose being shut away in a tower might be the inspiration for the classic fairy tale Rapunzel) ever walked the earth.  What little is known about them is so steeped in “tradition” (folk tales assumed to be true) and convoluted (picking apart the threads of Dymphna’s biography from another is nearly impossible) that clear identification and authentication cannot be. Thus the Church has seen fit to remove these saints from its list of sanctioned persons.

The girls Dymphna and Barbara (and they were both in their teens when they were murdered) are joined by a third female saint, a young maiden whose wish to protect her virginity led to one of the most extensive and imaginative executions on record at the hands of the man who desired her.  However, just like her sisters in history, St. Philomena may be a product of oral tradition and not reality.

Mission of Peace
A mythos developed around a girl whose chastity was so dear to her (and to her Church) that she became a saint.  This is not uncommon in Catholic Church history – some of its better known female saints perhaps did nothing more in life than protect their hymens from rupture.  Whether or not this makes one saintly is irrelevant: it certainly fits one of the categories that the Church recognizes for starting the machinations of canonization. [Some of the other categories include true martyrs – people who died for their religion rather than renounce it; “doctors” – otherwise known as religious scholars; and Apostles and evangelists.]

With an informational accuracy not terribly common for the era – and this becomes important later – the female child (later venerated and canonized) “Philomena” was born in Corfu, Greece (an Corfu, Greece map (detail)Credit: vacationstogo.comisland-state near the southwest coast of Albania), into a family of nobility on January 10, 291 CE.  Her name was popularly believed to have been derived from a Greek word meaning “beloved”.  Her father, a prince (or king), and her mother were converts to Christianity courtesy of a visiting Roman doctor named Publius.

Philomena was the only offspring of the two Greek royals.  Around the age of 13, she took a sacred vow of chastity, electing to keep her virginity in the name of religion.  In the early 4th Century CE, at about the time of Philomena’s virginity oath, threats from Rome against her father’s Greek kingdom surfaced.  To avoid war, and an almost certain defeat at the hands of the planet’s mightiest empire, Philomena’s father undertook a diplomatic errand to the Roman Emperor, Diocletian (born Diocles in what is now Solin in Croatia).  Philomena’s father took his family and household contingent to The Eternal City.

Her father’s mission was to dissuade an attack on his country.  Instead, he inadvertently set in motion the seeds of his daughter’s death at the hands of a megalomaniac.

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, Oh, My!
The Roman Empire was ruled jointly by agreement (started in 293 CE by Diocletian himself) by four co-emperors.  Each was assigned a quarter of the Roman Empire to rule. Diocletian’s actions against the Greek state of Philomena’s birth obviously meant his audience would be required if any violence was to be averted.

Her father’s peace mission fell short of its mark.  Diocletian saw the pubescent Philomena in the Greek entourage and desired her.  A marriage to this Greek princess would certainly Diocletian, 51st Roman Emperor (244-311 CE)Credit: youregypt.comenhance Diocletian’s status and his influence in Greece without the expense of a war.  Political marriages at the time were common enough, and there is little doubt that her Greek father might have entertained the idea seriously to keep his country safe.  Diocletian offered peace in exchange for the girl. 

Both Philomena’s father and mother pressured her to accept Diocletian as a husband.  The teen-aged Philomena, of course, did not want the Emperor Diocletian – she had already “given” herself to religion and would certainly not be an emperor’s plaything. Also, he would have been an old man of about 60 when the proposition was put forth, not an attractive mate for a girl.

She of course knew that rejection might mean a trip to the arena to be torn apart by wild carnivores; she rejected him anyway. 

Diocletian’s fury at this rejection was all out of proportion to the event.

No Slings, but Plenty of Arrows
Roman tortures and executions (along with those of the ancient Chinese and Medieval Vikings) were perhaps among the most creative in history, and they set good deterrent examples for the masses.  Jesus of Nazareth’s scourging, for example, was a fantastically sadistic and completely unnecessary exercise in brutality if he was to be crucified later (itself an appalling form of death).  It was akin to skinning a man alive, then burning him at the stake (also a common enough execution method).

Brutality is what fueled the Roman arenas and it also fueled the imaginations of Rome’s supreme rulers, its emperors.  Diocletian was no exception when it came time for him to teach Philomena (and by extension, her blood family and her extended “family” in Christ).  He sentenced her to a series of tortures that seem on the surface to be death sentences unto themselves.

First, she was scourged (in a way similar to that of the Jewish agitator Jesus almost 300 years earlier).  Two angels, however, came to her aid and healed her wounds, and she survived this punishment. Next, Philomena was bound and weighted with a ship’s anchor and tossed into the Tiber.  [This particular torment, minus the anchor, was also coincidentally a test for witchcraft.  If the subject – almost invariably a woman – sank in the water, then she was innocent, for the water “embraced” her sanctity as a person baptized.  If she floated, it meant the water rejected her as an object of the Devil, and she would be hauled out and put to death by other means, usually burning (in Europe).]

Next was a crude firing squad.  She was shot through with arrows – she miraculously healed.  A second attempt was set up; the arrows took flight, but could not hit their mark.  They were turned aside as if by a mysterious force.  On the last try at shooting her with arrows, rather than merely being turned aside, the arrows deflected and reversed course, killing six of the archers on the rustic firing squad.  It was reported that some of the surviving archers immediately converted to Christianity in the face of such miraculous doings.

The persecution of Philomena was not going well, and rather than make any more failed public attempts with pageantry Diocletian resorted to the expedient of beheading.  This was done on a Friday, at roughly 3 in the afternoon (by tradition, the same weekday and time of day the Jewish evangelist Jesus was pronounced dead).  The date was later established as August 10, 304.

Philomena of the Catacombs
The story of the little princess from Corfu might have ended with her death in 304 CE if not for a renewed interest in antiquities in the early 19th Century.  Amateur archaeology was a fad, but more erudite and professional people soon found their way into the field.

Rome was a favored place for antiquities’ finds simply because of its centuries’ long, continued occupancy, and architectural and artistic contributions to the world at its zenith. Among the more interesting archaeological finds are what is known as “The Catacombs” (a collection of distinct subterranean burial sites and ossuaries spanning back in time to 1st Century CE Rome). In the network of catacombs is one that began as a rock quarry outside the city proper toward the late 2nd Century CE.  This site is called The Catacomb of Priscilla.  It was named in honor of Priscilla, the wife of a local landowner and member of Rome’s élite, Acilius.  He became a member of the Roman consulate in 91 CE.  He converted to Christianity, but was martyred by Domitian some time during the latter part of his reign, which ended in 96 CE.

The quarry outside Rome was a place of segregation; it was specifically set aside to bury the Christian dead, whether martyred or not, to avoid cultural pollution within the walls of Rome.

Catacomb of Priscilla (2 views)Credit: vatican.va

The Catacomb of Priscilla was in use from its opening to roughly the mid 4th Century CE.  It was known in its prime as “Queen of the Catacombs” because buried within its confines were two early popes and many Christian martyrs.

The quarry catacomb had been investigated as early as the late 1700s.  Bodies were placed in low niches carved into the rock; these enclosed burial shelves are properly termed loculi.  On May 24, 1802, a previously unnoted loculus was uncovered. Its opening was mortared over with three inscribed terra-cotta tiles: lumena paxte cumfi. The tiles were thought to have been improperly sequenced when installed in the early 4th Century CE.  Scholarship of the day instead placed the proper order of the tiles thus: pax tecum Filumena.  Now, instead of a routine benediction for the deceased to “go with light and peace” (a loose translation of the originally ordered text), the message read, “Peace with you, Philomena”. The tiles also had decorative pictographs on them of two anchors, three arrows, and of a palm and an ivy leaf.  These were interpreted as symbols of this girl’s martyrdom, with no specific meaning at the time.

The day after this loculus was discovered it was opened.  Embedded in the sealing mortar was a small glass vial.  It contained the dried remains of what was believed (by inspection) to be blood. Interred within the confines of the loculus were the skeletal remains of what was thought to be an adolescent female between 13 and perhaps 15 years old. There was a belief at the time that all Christian martyrs had been interred with a vial of the corpse’s blood.  Thus, with the vial, the name “Philomena”, and the remains on hand, the conclusion was that a martyred female named Philomena was on-hand.  Considering the naïveté of the day, her virginity was presumed considering her youth, and thus the cult of a previously unknown Christina virgin martyr, Philomena, was brought to the light of day.  Other than the remains, the tiles, and the vial of dried blood nothing was known of this girl.

Churches possessing genuine relics of saints and other early Christian figures were popular attractions.   A church in Naples was having a new altar built in 1805.  A request was made for relics to install with the new altar, and the remains found in the Philomena loculus were forwarded from Rome to Naples, arriving there in the summer of 1805.  The skeletal remains (from mishandling and exposure in the intervening years) had been reduced to dust and fragments; regardless, they were installed in the church at Mugnano del Cardinale in Naples on August 11, 1805.   A little over two decades later (1827) this same church was presented with the “Philomena” inscribed terra-cotta tiles from the original archaeological find.  This church became the center of devotion and veneration for the mysterious girl-martyr, Philomena.

A Saint is Born
And, yet, Philomena had no biography.  The relics ascribed to her were nothing more than remains found with a dubious translated name on some terra-cotta tiles that also carried some mysterious symbols: anchors, arrows, and leaves from two different plants.

This lack of information resolved itself through a Marian-type vision.  Born in 1799 near Naples, Maria Carmela Ascione was the oldest of ten children born to a doctor and his wife.  She was steeped in the religion of the area, and certainly knew of the Philomena remains enshrined at Mugnano del Cardinale.  Against her father’s wishes she entered the Benedictine Donnaromita in Naples when she was 17, but left after a few months.  She was in chronic bad health, but managed, after entering another order, to take her vows and become Sister Maria Luisa de Gesú when she was 21 in 1820.  Again, extreme ill health forced her to vacate her devotions, but she returned in 1824.

She was plagued with ongoing health issues throughout her life (a “bad liver” in her teen years, anxiety, “dryness of spirit”, frequent and debilitating high fevers, even cholera inSt. Philomena(122579)Credit: traditioninaction.org 1836).  In August 1833, she reported a series of visions involving Philomena, and it is from these visions that Philomena’s story was finally formed.  Maria Luisa learned from a voice that Philomena’s name – “Filumena” – meant “daughter of light” (though the general consensus is the word means “beloved”).  Maria Luisa’s spiritual voice provided details of the fateful meeting with Diocletian, the attempted drowning and piercing with arrows, and other anecdotes that form Philomena’s tale today.  The palm leaf and ivy leaf were likewise explained by the voice speaking as Philomena – when her throat was opened with a lance, and her spit departed, it flew up to Heaven where she was given the crown of virginity (of ivy) and a palm of martyrdom.  The details of Maria Luisa’s visions were accepted as revelatory and were sanctioned as legitimate by the Catholic Church in December 1833.  

The Philomena relics in the Neapolitan church were popularized and became objects of veneration. Devotees of this young martyr came not only from the rank-and-file, but from among the Church’s more devout adherents, and interest spread to France. Veneration is but a step on the road to sainthood.  There must also be miracles, either associated with the venerable person, her relics, or miracles of intercession (miraculous events that happen to other people who pray to her for help). 

The cult of Philomena had miracles.  Although not reported at the time of arrival, her relics alone allegedly produced some interesting supernatural displays.  According to the canon who had first requested the relics for placement in his church (in a memoir written 28 years afterward in 1833), he said a statue included with the relics sweated a liquid continuously for three days.

As for intercession miracles, Philomena was championed by two very religious persons.  Pauline-Marie Jaricot (born and died in Lyons, France: 1799-1862) When she wasPauline-Marie Jaricot (1799-1862)Credit: public domain seventeen she began to lead a life of what religion calls “abnegation” (extreme self-denial and self-sacrifice).  This girl thought she had somehow been exceedingly sinful, and on Christmas Day 1816, she took a vow of virginity. 

The domestic servants of France, working in homes of the better-heeled citizenry, were almost overwhelmingly women.  Of these, many were of loose virtue if not outright part-time prostitutes.  Pauline, the newly-resolved virgin, set out to save some of these girls, and she started with her married sister’s household staff.  [It is likely Pauline suspected her brother-in-law of improper, intimate contacts with the servant girls.  This was common practice in that era.]  Pauline started up a group to help these servant girls re-affirm their faith in Christ and to “repair” their damaged hearts (as it related to spiritual matters).  The other benefit, of course, is that such a group under his own roof would have helped thwart her brother-in-law’s sexual advances toward these girls.

She later used her organizing skills – and the help of some of her “recovered” servant-girl soiled doves – to solicit donations for foreign missionary work (beginning in 1819).  She founded other beneficent organizations, and she is listed as a “foundress” in Church literature.  Furthermore, she has been accepted as worthy of veneration, and her name has been submitted for sainthood.

Pauline’s brush with a miracle of Philomena occurred in 1835.  She fell very ill; thinking she was dying and to ease her suffering, she made a pilgrimage from France to Naples. She continued on, visiting and praying in the Mugnano del Cardinale village church that contained the dust of Philomena’s remains among its relics.  She was healed on August 10, 1835 – she gave the credit for her sudden good health to the girl martyr. [Because of Pauline’s known piety and devotion to her Church, this healing was the miracle considered substantial enough to start beatification of Philomena].  On January 13, 1837, under authority of Pope Gregory XVI (predicated upon Philomena’s miraculous intercession on behalf of Pauline-Marie Jaricot) a feast day, August 11, was added to the Catholic Church’s calendar in honor of St. Philomena.

Another intercession miracle was ascribed to a very different sort of pious person.  One of the Church’s most devout men (who would later become a saint himself, the patron saint ofJean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney (1786-1859)Credit: public domain priests, no less) was Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney.  Born in 1786 in Dardilly (in eastern France near Switzerland), he developed an early admiration for Catholic priests during The French Revolution when Catholic priests, at great personal peril, conducted secret masses for displaced Catholics.

Vianney was drafted into Napoleon’s army despite being an ecclesiastical student in 1809 (Napoleon had removed the draft exemption for such students in some parts of the country).  However, illness kept him from joining his group on time; he was sent off to join up with another group, but failed to meet them, and was considered a deserter.  He hid out for 14 months in a remote mountain village.  A general amnesty was issued for all deserters in 1810, and he returned to his religious studies, ultimately becoming the Curé of Ars, France. 

He spent his religious life practicing mortification (self-inflicted wounding of the flesh in penance), and he was pathologically devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was also very attached to the girl martyr, Philomena.  He thought of her as his personal guardian, and he commissioned a chapel and shrine in her honor.  In May 1843, Vianney (who was never robust) became so ill he believed he was at Death’s door.  He prayed to his guardian, Philomena, to cure him.  If she did, he promised, he would say 100 Masses at the shrine he had built for her.  He recovered twelve days after his plea for help from Philomena, and it was to her he accredited his improved health.

Thus, Philomena had intercession miracles in her background.

Fi Lumena’s Light of Clarity
Dissecting the circumstances of Philomena’s “discovery” can only lead to the conclusion that, although there were definitely remains discovered in a loculus in the Catacomb of Priscilla attributed to her, there can be no certainty now or ever that such a girl martyr ever existed.

The theory that all martyrs were interred with some of the deceased’s blood in a vial was debunked in the late 19th Century by an Italian secular archaeologist with a passion for Christian antiquities.  Giovanni Battista De Rossi (1822–1894) developed an early interest in the earliest of Christian archaeology as a youth, and he pursued investigations using the catacombs as a field office.  These were usually conducted on his own time and outside the scope of his more earthly works.  He learned much about the history of those Christians persecuted by the Romans in the earliest days of the Christian cult, and his works were given the imprimatur of the Church as well. 

Thus, the vial with the dark substance within cannot be used as evidence of martyrdom, nor should it have been (popular thinking led to that conclusion).  Furthermore, at the time of disinterment there were no known chemical tests for blood – testing to determine if a given substance was blood was not developed until 1853.  The further refinement of learning if a given blood sample was human was not discovered until 1901. So, the vial could have or could not have contained blood. It was not known upon its inspection, a conclusion was drawn.

As for the inscribed terra cotta tiles, some disturbing facts surrounding burial practices of the era tend to call the information gleaned from them into question, too.  Although the body pulled from the loculus was affixed to the early 4th Century CE, the tiles used for sealing the niche were learned to date from the 2nd Century CE.  Considering that building materials’ manufacture was a labor-intensive process then, many things were recycled and repurposed.  Common practice for interments wherein older inscribed materials were used was to purposefully place them in an order clearly designed to indicate that the person named on the tiles was not who was interred within.  Thus, it appears that the original, more generic, “go with light and peace” inscription (as found in situ) was probably the intended epitaph for the unknown within.

Sister Maria Luisa’s revelatory story has a few coincidences in it that make it difficult to use as credible fact.  Starting with Philomena’s death date – August 10 – there is something very pat about the story.  August 10 was the date the Philomena relics arrived in Naples, and then sent on to the church in Mugnano del Cardinale, where they were installed the next day. It seems like a mighty coincidence that Philomena’s day of death should also be the exact same day her relics arrived in the vicinity of her final resting place [though the Church established her feast day as August 11, probably the day the relics were installed in the shrine of her devotion.] Similarly, the birth date of St. Philomena – January 10 – seems awfully specific, and it must have meant something to either the general populace (since forgotten) or to Maria Luisa specifically.

As for the tale of St. Philomena’s martyrdom at the hands of Diocletian, there is much contrived in reconciling the story with the evidence on hand. In order to explain why a Greek king would bother to take his daughter and wife on a diplomatic mission, Maria Luisa’s vision told her that because Philomena was this couple’s only child (and she was conceived only after they had rejected idolatry and accepted Christianity) they could not bear to be parted from her for any period of time.  Thus, she was dragged with them to Rome and to her doom.

Spurned “love” may have had little to do with what happened next.  Christians were not welcomed in Rome.  In fact, the Roman Empire’s last legally sanctioned – and its most purgative – started February 24, 303 CE and called “the Diocletianic Persecution” (although three other co-emperors also signed edicts sanctioning the persecution at its inception). Christian persecutions stemmed from that cult’s refusal to sacrifice to the Roman gods, or to recognize the Roman emperor as a god himself, worthy of worship. As a result of this recalcitrance (a decided failure to do as the Romans when in Rome), roughly 3500 Christians were put to death, not for their personal faith but for rejecting the law of the land.  [It is this period in Roman history, under Diocletian and his fellow emperors, that the classic image of the long-suffering, ever-persecuted, thrown-to-the-lions Christian was solidified in pop culture.]  They were torn apart in arenas by wild animals for amusement, tortured, imprisoned, or dislocated.  Most, however, managed to avoid any kind of punishment by complying (at least publicly) with the sacrificial requirements set forth by Rome.

The Christian Martyrs' Last PrayerCredit: Jean-Léon Gérôme (between 1863 and 1883); pubic domain

Diocletian, while perhaps overlooking Philomena’s rejection romantically as part of life, could not have easily overlooked her “Christianity”.  Roman rule required the Emperor be treated as a god – who was this juvenile who refused the advances of a god?  Furthermore, he was duty bound to punish Christians where they were ferreted out: here was one (part of a family, no less) who was at his mercy thanks to her father.   She was a Christian, and that St. Philomena shrine in Mugnano del Cardinalemeant Diocletian had to tend to her under the edicts that he and his co-emperors had issued.

As for the anchors, arrows, and leaves, these were fitted neatly into the story by Maria Luisa to give a complete accounting for all known artifacts.  However, if the tiles were not those of the interred person then all of the symbols are moot. This, then, leads one to conclude that Maria Luisa (probably legitimately, perhaps in a fever state as was common for her) hallucinated the story, and her fevered brain made the story fit what was physically available.

In the end, the harsh reality is that while there is a shrine at Mugnano del Cardinale with an effigy and an area that holds the dust and terra cotta tomb tiles of a person buried in the Catacomb of Priscilla, it is unlikely it is of a young 3rd – 4th Century Corfu girl named Philomena.

Un-Saint Philomena
Does the fact that the simple physical artifacts do not lead conclusively to a St. Philomena render her “unsaintly”?  Not in the least.  The story itself is still a great piece of human St. Philomena prayer card (Denmark)Credit: philomena-zentrum.deimagining, and is worth retelling in the same way the tale of Cinderella is worth retelling.

Does the fact that the Catholic Church removed St. Philomena’s feast day from its calendar in the 1960s mean she is no longer a saint or to be venerated?  Absolutely not.  In removing her feast day, the Church made it clear that it was neither denying her existence nor was the apocryphal Philomena being stripped of her sainthood.

Some people have argued that Philomena was never properly canonized, and therefore was never a saint.  This, too, is untrue.  The current canonization procedure has not been in place long enough for consistent application (and even into the 20th Century there were exceptions to the approved process).  Some people were automatically granted (assumed) sainthood, such as the early martyrs, the original Apostles, or St. Joseph (stepfather of the evangelist Jesus from whom Christianity sprang forth).  Thus, Philomena, an assumed early 4th Century martyr, would have been granted such status.

Finally, there are the believers.  Belief in the teen saint has positively influenced the lives of many people, not the least of whom were some (like Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney) who became saints themselves (uncontested), and others (like Pauline-Marie Jaricot) whose name is under consideration for sainthood.

Rosary Chaplet of St. Philomena

The devotion to St. Philomena is cultic in many ways.  For example, she has a special rosary designed specifically for her.  There are thirteen red beads (one for each year of her life) andSt. Philomena prayer card(122582)Credit: catholicharboroffaithandmorals.com three white beads (representative of the Holy Trinity).  It is a beautiful piece of religious paraphernalia.  She has prayers written specifically for her.  And of course, there is the symbolism, reflected in every image of her: the anchors and the arrows.

And more than the loftier religious icons who venerated her, there are the masses that pray to St. Philomena or believe she was real.  For them, she provides a solace in the same way that the dubious St. Margaret of Antioch provided solace for Jeanne d’Arc.  And that makes her tangible, at least in the mind’s eye.


Philomena's special rosary

Chaplet of St. Philomena
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