Present Ecclesial Status of Devotion to St. Philomena
Dr. Mark I. Miravalle
Precisely how the Church views the history and nature of devotion attributed to an early Roman martyr named "Filumena" (or more popularly, "Filomena"[Ital.] or "Philomena" [Eng.]), a name found inscribed on a catacomb loculus, remains a topic of considerable discussion and confusion.
The status of devotion to St. Philomena has recently received renewed attention in light of the recent release of the revised Roman Martyrology by the Congregation for Divine Worship, (1) whereby the omission of St. Philomena was perceived by some as an official rejection of her status as a saint, somewhat inconsistent with the fact that she continues to be the object of popular Church devotion throughout the world. (2)
What then is the present ecclesial status of this early Church female martyr, the veneration of whom in the past has been the object of several papal documents and numerous hagiographical testimonies? In seeking to examine this question, we will briefly examine the historical origins of devotion; papal and ecclesiastical decrees regarding the devotion; hagiographical testimonies; the archeological controversy; and recent Church documents relative to the devotion.
Historical Origins of the Devotion
On May 24, 1802, an excavator in the Catacombs of Priscilla struck a tile and, as previously instructed by Msgr. Ponzetti, Custodian of the Holy Relics, immediately ceased the excavation. (3) Fr. Filippo Ludovici, Vatican overseer of the excavation was informed, and on the following day, May 25, 1802, Fr. Ludovici, accompanied by several observers, descended into the catacomb, and witnessed the full uncovering of the loculus, (4) whereby with the removal of soil, three brick funeral tiles were revealed which bore an epitaph painted in red. A vial was found broken in the process of unsealing the loculus, with a dust of blackish color indicating blood clinging to glass fragments, and with the lower portion of the vial still intact and firmly embedded in the cement. (5) An engraved palm branch, the other typical sign which designates the tomb of a martyr along with the blood vial, was observed on the second tile. (6)