What follows is a summary of the story of Saint Philomena…
On May 24th, 1802, cleaning and clearing work was in progress in the most ancient of all the catacombs in Rome, the St. Priscilla catacombs, which dated almost from apostolic times. One of the workers, while digging in one of the ancient tunnels, by accident found a shelf-tomb that had never been opened. (Most of the graves in this cemetery had been opened, and their relics removed for safety.) The tomb was clearly the tomb of a martyr, with rough inscriptions including arrows, a lance, an anchor, a lily or flame, and the words:
The three terracotta tiles bearing the inscriptions had been misplaced, either due to the tombs hasty construction, the darkness, or by a workman that could not read. The first tile should actually have been the third, in which case the writing would read:
“Peace be to you, Philomena.”
On May 25th, the tiles were removed and the tomb opened. It contained some small bones, unbroken, and a fractured skull, proving it beyond question to be the tomb of a martyr. Also embedded in the concrete which had closed the tomb was a broken phial still containing a substance which was tested and proved to be dried blood.
The doctors and surgeons convened to give their opinion stated that the relics were those of a girl not more than fourteen years of age. Archaeologists said that, from various indications, they were satisfied that the tomb dated from not later than 160 AD, and might be earlier. The relics were those of a girl-martyr who had received the Faith from those who had known the apostles.
Skipping ahead a bit, beyond the wonderful (but lengthy) story that unfolds after the discovery of Saint Philomena’s relics in 1802, we come to August 3rd, 1833. Mother Maria Luisa di Gesù, a Dominican Tertiary Nun, was praying after Communion before a statue of Saint Philomena. She knew that the relics of Saint Philomena had arrived in Mugnano, Italy, on August 10th, to be kept for veneration in Mugnano’s village church, but felt a great desire to know the true date of the Saint’s martyrdom. While she was praying she felt that she must close her eyes, and when she did, she heard a gracious soft voice speak to her from the direction of the statue, saying:
“Dear Sister, August 10th was the day of my rest, my triumph, my birth into Heaven, my entering into the possession of such eternal goods as the human mind cannot possibly imagine. That is why my Heavenly Spouse disposed by His most high decrees that my coming to Mugnano should be on the day which had seen my coming to Heaven! He prepared so many circumstances which should make my arrival at Mugnano glorious and triumphant, giving joy to all the people, even though the priest who brought me had absolutely decided that my translation should take place on the 5th of the month very quietly in his own house. My omnipotent Spouse impeded him with so many obstacles that the priest, although he did all he could to carry out his plan, could not do so. And so it came about that the said translation was made on the tenth, the day of my feast in Heaven.”
Mother Maria Luisa thought she had fallen prey to an illusion, but her confessor and director was not so hasty in disposing the matter, and after testing it, gave Mother Luisa an obedience to ask Saint Philomena to tell her more about her life. There then came a day when Mother Luisa was in her cell praying, felt her eyes being closed, and heard the gracious voice again. This is what Saint Philomena told of her own story:
“I am the daughter of the king of a small Grecian state, and my mother too, was of royal blood. As they had no children, my parents continually offered sacrifices and prayers to the false gods to obtain a child. We had in our family a doctor named Publius and he was a Christian. He pitied the blindness of my parents, and especially he had compassion on my mother in her childlessness. Inspired by the Holy Spirit he spoke to them of our Faith, and, also inspired, made them this promise: ‘If you want a child, be baptized an embrace the religion of Jesus Christ.’ Grace accompanied his words an enlightened their minds, softened their hearts, and moved them to consent. They were instructed and were baptized with some of their courtiers who were in their confidence.
“A year later–on January 10th to be exact–I was born, and I was called Lumina, because I had been conceived and born in the light of the Faith, to which my parents were truly devoted. And then I was called Filumena–Daughter of Light, of that light of Christ which dwelt in my soul by the grace received in baptism. And because of my birth many families in the kingdom became Christians. I grew up with the teaching of the Gospel printed more and more deeply in my heart. When I was five, I received for the first time Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist; and in that day was planted in my heart the desire to be united forever to my Redeemer Who is the Spouse of virgins. And when I was eleven, I consecrated myself to Him by vow.
“There came the thirteenth year of my life. The peace of Christ, which until that day had reigned in the household and kingdom of my father, was disturbed by the proud and powerful Emperor Diocletian, who unjustly declared war against us. My father, realizing his inferior strength, decided to go to Rome to make some pact of peace with Emperor. So great was the tender affection my father had for me that he could not bear me out of his site for an hour, and so I went with him on his journey to Rome; and rather than be left without us, my mother came too.
“Arrived in Rome, he asked an audience with the tyrant, and when it was granted, took me and my mother with him to the Palace of the Caesars. While my father pleaded his cause and pointed out the injustice of the war that was made on him, the Emperor kept looking at me, and finally interrupted my father, saying: ‘Do not distress yourself further. Your anxiety is at an end. Be consoled. You shall have all the Imperial force for your own protection, if you will but consent to a single condition: namely to give me your daughter Filumena for my wife.’
“My parents accepted his condition, and on our return home sought to convince me of my great fortune in becoming the Empress of the Romans.
“But I rejected the offer without a moment’s hesitation, saying that I was already betrothed to Jesus Christ, as I had made a vow of virginity when I was eleven. My father tried to persuade me that, as a child and a daughter, I had no right to dispose of myself, and he used all his authority to make me accept the proposal. But my Divine Spouse gave me the strength to persevere in my resolution. Then my mother had recourse to caresses, begging me to have pity on my father, on my mother, and on my country. I replied:
‘God is my Father and Heaven is my mother.’
“My parents were unable to do anything in the face of my refusal, which would be taken by the Emperor as a mere pretext of bad faith and the excuse of a deceiver. He ordered me to be brought into his presence.
“My father came for me, but seeing me unshaken in my resolution, he and my mother cast themselves at my feet and implored me to do as they wished, saying: ‘Daughter, have pity on us, your parents! Have pity on the country and kingdom!’
“I replied: ‘God and virginity come first. My kingdom and my country are Heaven.’
“In this tempest of trouble I was called before the Emperor, and my father had to conduct me before him. Diocletian at first received me with every kindness and honor to make me accede to his request and to give him my promise. But he obtained nothing from me. Seeing me absolutely firm, and losing all hope of gaining his desire, he began to threaten me. He could not overcome me. Then, in a fit of fury, raging like a devil, he launched his threat:
‘If you won’t have me as a lover, you shall have me as a tyrant!’
I replied: ‘I neither care for you as a lover, nor fear you as a tyrant.’
“The Emperor, visibly infuriated, ordered me to be shut up in a dungeon under the armory of the Imperial Palace. I was chained hand a foot, fed once a day on bread and water, and he came himself daily to renew his pestering of me. But my heavenly Spouse took care of me. And I never ceased to recommend myself to my Jesus and his most pure Mother. On the thirty-sixth day, there appeared to me the most Holy Virgin, surrounded by the light a Paradise, with her Little Son in her arms, and she spoke thus to me: ‘Daughter, you will remain three more days in this dungeon, and then on the fortieth day of your imprisonment you will leave this place of sorrow.’
“‘When you leave it you will be exposed to a great battle of atrocious torments.’
“Thereupon I trembled, and saw myself in the anguish of death, but the heavenly Queen gave me courage, saying thus:
“‘My daughter, you are dearer to me than others because you have my name and the name of my son. You are called Lumina, and my Son is called Light, Sun, and Star; and I am called Dawn, Star, and Moon. I will be your helper. Now is the hour of human weakness which humbles you, but there will come the fortitude of grace which will assist you, and you shall have, beside the Angle who guards you, the protection of the Archangel Saint Gabriel whose name signifies The Strength of God. This Archangel was my protector on earth, and I will send him to help you as my daughter, beloved among the daughters. This Angel will assist you, and you shall come out victorious.’
“These words revived my courage, and the vision disappeared, leaving much fragrance in the prison, which consoled me.
“At last Diocletian despaired of turning me from my decision, and so he had recourse to torture to intimidate me, and to make me retract the vow of faithful virginity made to my Spouse. When the forty days were fulfilled, he had me brought out of prison and bound, naked, to a pillar in the presence of many of his gentlemen at arms and other officers of his palace, and he had me scourged, saying:
“‘Since she obstinately refuses an Emperor, such as I am, for a malefactor condemned to death by his own countrymen, she deserves like Him, to be treated to my justice.’
“Then seeing that though my body was covered with wounds an blood, and though life hardly remained in me, I was constant in my word, he ordered me to be taken back to prison to die. There I waited forsaken till death should take me to repose in the presence of my Spouse, when two angels appeared, anointed me with a precious ungent, and healed me.
“The next morning, the Emperor was astounded on hearing the news. Seeing me in full beauty and health, he tried to make me believe that I owed this favor to Jove who had cured me because he destined me to be the wife of the Emperor, and filled with the devil, he gave me every honor, and with ardent caresses of impure affection, strove to drive me to my ruin. But I remained firm, studying to convince myself that they were only the devices of the demon to take from me the most precious possession of my life, the lily of virginity which I had offered to my heavenly Spouse. And He that strengthened me in this fight was the Holy Spirit.
“Not knowing how to answer the reasons I advanced in favor of our Faith, and his gentlemen being unable to assist him, he displayed the greatest scorn, and snarling like a lion, ordered that an anchor of iron should be fasten to my neck and I should be thrown immediately into the Tiber; and that so, I and my memory should perish. But Jesus, to show his omnipotence, for the confusion of the tyrant and of the idolaters, sent again two most beautiful angels who broke the cord suddenly on my neck. The anchor fell into the depths of the Tiber, where it still lies, covered with river mud. I was held up on their wings and brought back without a drop of water having touched me.
“When the people saw me thus, in safety and glory, not even having been immersed, they spread it abroad, and many were converted to the Faith of Christ.
“The tyrant, in furious despair, shouted that it was all done by magic, and more obstinate than Pharaoh, ordered me to be dragged through the whole of Rome, and then shot at with arrows. When he saw me pierced with these shafts swooning and dying, he cruelly had me thrown again into prison so that I might die forsaken and without any comfort.
“In the morning, expecting to find me dead, he was stupefied to find me rosy and well, singing psalms in praise of God; for in the night the Omnipotent One had given me a sweet sleep, and my body had been anointed by an angel with a fragrant ointment, so that he found me healed and more beautiful than before.
“This caused the Emperor to be in such a cruel fury that he ordered me to be stripped once more, and shot through with arrows until I was dead. But by the will of the Most High, the archers bent their bows, but the arrows would not move; and the tyrant cursed me for a witch. Hoping that witchcraft would be unavailing against fire, he ordered that arrows should be heated red-hot in a furnace. But my Spouse saved me from this torment. Hardly had I been bound when I was rapt in ecstasy, and the arrows speeding towards my body turned back against the archers, and six of them died pierced by them. At the sight of this new miracle many more were converted, and the people began to turn in favor of the Faith. Fearing more serious consequences, the tyrant ordered me to be beheaded without more ado.
“And so my soul fled all triumphant and glorious to heaven, to receive from my Spouse the crown of virginity which had cost me so much, and which remained, with so many palms of victory, sufficient ornament in which to appear before Him.
“This happened on the tenth day of August, which was a Friday, at the hour which the Italians call nineteen and a half, which is half-past three in the afternoon. Therefore, as I have told you, the Most High caused my translation to Mugnano to take place on this day, with so many signs of heavenly assistance that the glory of it might be shown forth.”