Before learning of the young 13 year old martyr from the early Roman persecutions, I was aware of it but I don’t believe I ever met anyone with that name.
It’s an unusual name that must have had its origins in the 19th century after the young saint became widely known and so, for a while anyway, it became a name that was given to many young girls of Catholic background. With the passage of time, however, its popularity waned and so it’s now quite rare to find a girl with that name. But recently that changed for me, and a few others as well. I now have met two young girls named Philomena. But, before I tell you about them, let me tell the story of how I became acquainted with the young Greek girl who became a Christian and then courageously died a martyr’s death because of her loyalty to her God and her faith.
Some years ago, well before being called to the priesthood, I was given a cassette tape (remember cassettes?) on which an elderly priest, a Father Paul O’Sullivan,
related the story of an obscure little girl who was martyred a long time ago in Rome. The tape was about 90 minutes long and, to be honest, it was pretty dry.
Nevertheless I decided to listen to it.
One winter morning, lying in bed, I played it. The good father droned on for a long time with all of the details of the short life of the young girl. I found myself slipping in and out of consciousness for quite some time until one moment when father said that the birthday of the girl was January 10th. I lingered there for a while longer on the edge of consciousness, and it began to dawn on me that it was January, but I wasn’t quite sure what the date was. So I roused myself to get up and look for a calendar. And wouldn’t you know it, it was January 10th, St. Philomena’s birthday. Well, that was special. What an interesting coincidence. I filed that little event away in my mind and while no real devotion developed, I always enjoyed telling that story to others.
One evening many years later, now a priest, I was in my first assignment at St. Joseph Parish in Howell, MI. I was having dinner at the home of a parishioner when I noticed on the refrigerator a holy card with Philomena’s picture. Well, again, I didn’t hesitate to launch into my story but when I got the punch line, it occurred to me, again, that this was January. I asked what the date was. You guessed it. I suddenly realized that I had moved from the realm of mere coincidence and entered into a new level of reality. Could it be that the little girl from so many years ago was trying to make a connection?
Well shortly thereafter, I decided to tell my story to a Saturday morning Mass crowd. As I began, I got the sense that something was going on. A young lady sitting in the first row began to giggle. I asked her later what that was about. She said that Philomena was her Confirmation name. Others that day, and soon afterward, began to come to me with similar connections. Many shared the same birthday or that it was the anniversary of some special event in their lives. And so, my relationship with the young virgin/martyr began to grow.
I was soon to discover that Philomena was a patron saint for difficult or impossible causes. She would share that title along with St. Jude and St. Rita of Cascia. But she was also a patroness of Catholic Schools. We had a school at St. Joseph and so we began to invoke her help with our various needs and concerns, one of which was that we were looking for new principal. We went on a search and interviewed several worthy candidates. One of them looked pretty promising. So we puzzled over what to do.
Finally on May 24th of 2002, the 200th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of Philomena in the catacombs under Rome. Our new principal peeked in the back door of the church as we were saying a school mass. She caught my eye up at the altar and gave me the “thumbs up”. What a great day for St. Joseph School!
There is yet another day of significance in the life of St. Philomena and that is August 11. This was her official feast day for many years but it was eventually superseded by the feast of St. Clare of Assisi. Perhaps the reason for this was that the Church has no official record of St. Philomena. She had no history. Nothing on paper
as there is with Clare and Francis and most other saints. All we know officially about Philomena is that she lived, was a young girl, and was martyred.
Her tomb showed indications of these few facts.
There were three tablets that covered her burial niche in the catacombs but they were out of order. It said, “Lumena, Pax Tecum Fi.” It was rearranged to read,
“Pax Tecum, Filomena” which translates from Latin as, “Peace to you Philomena”.
As for the other details, they came from private revelations to a religious nun, Sister Luisa de Gesu, in the 19th century and that’s where we got the information about her birthday. That, along with many signs and wonders and miracle has helped develop the cult of Philomena all around the world. And I suspect that there are many out there who have been given the special grace of having “met” her through some unusual, divine coincidences, as I have.
I should also point out that one of the early members of that cult was the patron saint of Catholic Priests, St. John Vianney, the Cure`of Ars. He always gave her credit for all the wonders he performed. Another was Pauline Jaricot who was healed of a very serious illness through the intercession of the saint. In fact, it was her miraculous healing from serious heart problems that led to the beginning of Philomena’s cause for sainthood.
Needless to say, I have brought my devotion to St. Philomena with me here to Holy Spirit Church. But apparently she was waiting for me. There was a picture on the principal’s door that had been given to her but the school had no real knowledge of the girl saint. Ours is a small fledgling school that has had a difficult time growing. We have been stuck at 60 students for the last 4 years and it has seemed that we may soon have to have that dreaded discussion about closing our doors. We had prayed faithfully, but with no apparent progress. We regularly honored Philomena on her several feast days but it appeared that she was not hearing us. One day, in frustration, I gave an ultimatum to our young patroness. I said, if you don’t do something soon, we’ll just have to find another patron to help us. And I said this publicly, at a school mass. “Philomena, if you’re on our side, we need 75 students to make our school viable.” And I gave her a deadline.
I’d like to actually call this technique “wrestling with God”, as Jacob did in the Old Testament story. After all, it is God who really accomplishes these things through the intercession of his saints. There is also a precedent of this in one of the stories that came out of Italy in the 19th century. The locals made quite a fuss when their little saint seemed as if she was ignoring them. After all, their reputation was at stake. (This was actually the Pauline Jaricot story.) But, they “wrestled”, got her attention, and their prayers were answered in a very timely fashion on the saint’s feast day. And in the process they also learned something about how it all works. It’s the standard test to see if we are really committed to having our prayers answered.
Be persistent in prayer, the gospels say. “Ask and you will receive, knock and the door will be opened. Seek and you will find.” And, if need be, “wrestle” with God. Make your claims on His promises.
Well, as is often the case, prayers sometimes get answered at the last minute and after a bit of wrestling. At the beginning of the school year, 2011, we gained about 10 more students. It was short of our goal of 75 but still quite an accomplishment considering that many Catholic schools are losing students in these difficult times. In a homily I expressed some cautious optimism and told the parishioners that I would keep them informed. (Did I mention that one of our first new students was a little girl named Philomena who we knew would be entering our Kindergarten?)
Well OK. Soon there would be more news. In the first week of that school year, we signed up 5 more students. One family recently moved here from Ohio and enrolled their two children for our school. They were # 74 and 75. Charles, and his big sister, and guess what, her name was Philomena. And what’s more, she was 13 years old, the age of the saint when she was martyred. She was in the eighth grade and was with us for only that one year, and then moved on, as if she was on a mission to assist us for a time with this great sign.
So, instead of talking about closing our little school, the conversation has now changed to: When are we going to build a new school?
As part of my personal deal with Philomena, if she came through for us, I promised to lead a pilgrimage to Rome and Mugnano on or about May 24th of 2012, which was to be the 210th anniversary of the finding of her remains in the catacombs of Rome. That pilgrimage didn’t materialize but I was able to go later in the year as part of a canonization of 7 saints on October 21st.
We lost some students, the student count reversed from 75 to 57. This was a great disappointment but we have been reminded that prayers are sometimes answered with a cross. Plans for the new Holy Spirit Elementary School continued and in June 2014 construction started. The keys were turned over to us in December 2014, according to plans and our sweet school children were able to start classes in the new building right after the Christmas break in January 2015. The school has been dedicated to our little saint.
If you would like to contribute to our cause of making solid Catholic education to all children in our community, we would be greatly appreciative. See our Homepage, where you have an option for Online Giving. Thank you and God Bless.
Fr. John Rocus