Once upon a time in Rome, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (in the third century), a young girl gave her life in witness to Christ under harrowing circumstances hard to imagine. She did this in spite of frightened parents, repeated and successively more cruel tortures, threats and even persuasive words and temptations from those around her. She also spent some time chained, bleeding, and broken in the Emperor’s dungeon. There Mary is said to have appeared to her and healed her, strengthening her resolve with the promise of victory and the hope of Heaven. Some of her tormenters were converted to Christ by this child’s astonishing courage, faith and perseverance through punishment after punishment.
Quite a long time later, in the year 2002, in a little chapel in San Antonio, a profoundly wounded young widow (that would be me) knelt to pray for healing for herself and her family as she faced another traumatic trial in life. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it sometimes. I had come on a day trip pilgrimage to the Lourdes grotto of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate with my sister-in-law, Jamie, to ask the intercession of Mary and for her motherly protection and wisdom for myself and my family.
On a small table at the end of my pew in the Eucharistic chapel there was a statue of an intense looking young saint that interested me. Her little pedestal said, “St. Philomena, Patroness of the Children of Mary.” Well then, she was the patroness of me.
Later at home I found a holy card of St. Philomena under our family Bible. I had no idea where it had come from. Did this girl saint have something to say to me in my painful struggle? I felt compelled to try to find out more about her.
I started to research her life and the devotion to her. Frankly some of the material about her was a little weird, even for me. She sounded like a fairy tale. But I eventually found the official web site of her shrine in Mugnano, Italy where her body is venerated. This site had a lot of solid information and beautiful art. It was Church sanctioned. The resting place of St. Philomena had even been visited by an impressive list of Popes.
St. Philomena’s body was found in 1802 in the catacomb of St. Pricilla in Rome. Her epitaph said, “Peace be with you, Philomena,” and showed the martyr’s palm, a drawing of arrows and an anchor; the instruments of the torture she had undergone for her faithfulness to Christ. Inside were the bones of a 13-15 year old girl. Present also was the phial of blood often collected by the early Christians when one of them was martyred. Miracles and signs surrounded the opening of her tomb, and even of the opening of the phial of blood that day in May, 1802, wonders which were witnessed by many.
It seemed God was saying to the world, “Get to know this young woman. She is very close to Me, and I have given her great works to do in My Name.”
It was hard to know anything more about her. The only accounts we have are private revelation that is approved but not as certain as written testimony from her contemporaries would be of course. According to this private revelation and the hints from the drawings on her tomb, she had been through and survived one martyrdom after another. She sounded like my kind of girl.
St. Philomena is the only saint ever to be canonized solely on the basis of her numerous miracles, some of them spectacular and public. She came to be called “The Wonder Worker,” and it was commonly said, “to St. Philomena, nothing is refused.” Among the countless people healed by her intercession is Ven. Pauline Jaricot who arrived at the shrine on the verge of death. She was dramatically healed amid shouts and rapping on the saint’s tomb from the crowd that was there. Philomena was St. John Vianney’s favorite saint. He talked to her every day, and had a small chapel built for the relic of her he was given. He encouraged devotion to her. Endearingly, he attributed all his miracles to her intercession.
I decided she definitely had something to teach me, and I began to cultivate a relationship with this mysterious little saint; thinking of her and speaking to her often, doing small things to honor her. I felt like she was with me and understood my darkness, fear, grief and trauma, very well. It seemed she was compassionate to me and laid a prayerful hand on me when I really felt I couldn’t take the suffering anymore. I think she helped me remember that in Christ I can do anything.
My daughter, Maire, took to St. Philomena so much after we read the book
I Ask St. Philomena by Rick Medina, that she made her her patroness when she was 13. Maire’s eventual Confirmation name was Philomena. She always wore Philomena’s cord wound around her ankle or wrist as a kid. She still does. (It’s supposed to go around the waist but Maire never does anything the normal way.) Last year she had an anchor tattooed to her shoulder in her saints’ honor. “Look, Mom! It’s for St. Philomena!”
St. Philomena has been a good friend to us and accompanied our family through many crises and hardships. Her intercession even brought back two people who left the family. One of them, a young run-away, was found staying only a few miles from a church that had a bone chip of St. Philomena’s. It was like a wink from her. During family prayer of a novena to her we even heard a sudden knocking sound we couldn’t find the origin of. We wondered about it. Then we read that this happened all over the world to other friends of St. Philomena, too, and that it was a sign of her intercession. Another wink.
Other times she seems to have worked the even greater miracle of obtaining for us the grace and strength to accept whatever Christ asked of us, no matter how hard it was, no matter how many times He asked it, and to do it with love, faithfulness and trust in Him, as she did.
A tiny 2nd class relic of hers went with us to every radiation and chemotherapy treatment, scary doctor’s appointment and MRI my husband, Bob, had during his fight with the aggressive brain cancer, GBM. I anointed him with her holy oil before every procedure and prayed her chaplet during each one.
Bob made it two and a half years, which is an unusually long time for GBM, from his diagnosis to his death in 2012. As he often said, those years were the happiest of his life. He had an excellent quality of life almost to the end of it. He kept working. He kept helping people. He bloomed beautifully as a human being, started painting (very well, too), learned more about love than ever before, and inspired many people with his outrageous courage, sense of humor, undying hope and growth in charity during his struggles. He also fulfilled his heart’s desire of becoming a Catholic during that time. He died a beautiful, holy, love filled death.
St. Philomena has taught our family through her life and spiritual friendship over the years, that no matter what, it will be OK, and even if it’s not OK, it will be OK. Our lives are God’s. And we are going to Him. What else is there? As Bob said, “We love we, walk on”. And no matter what, “God is it.”
One way we honor St. Philomena in our family (besides having named Bob’s cat after her) is for all of us, and whoever wants to come along, to dress in red and/or white and go out for Italian food every year on her feast day, August11. Red and white are her colors. Red is for her martyrdom, the white for her purity. People sometimes ask what team we are from when they see us. ☺Here is St. Philomena Day in 2010.
In thanksgiving, we also try to let people know about her. No matter what your troubles are, and if you are suffering very much, St. Philomena will intercede for you in a special way and companion you on your journey. She never gave up. She will help you never give up either and follow Christ to the end. She may bring a miracle that is more than you asked for, or she might help you accept the martyrs’ crown, even with love and joy. She knows better than most that our tears become jewels on our garments in God’s Kingdom and that every one of our trials suffered with Christ helps us grow in the knowledge and love of Him.
We recommend to you her friendship in Christ, and we pray you find comfort in your sufferings and trials, that you receive more grace than you ever thought you could by the intercession and example of our good friend St. Philomena.
Blessed be God, wonderful in His Saints.