RECORDED COMMENT OF THE LITURGICAL REFORM ABOUT THE CULT OF SAINT PHILOMENA
Absence of the initial document of the cult
The figure of Philomena, young roman martyr, emerged after nearly seventeen centuries of silence. There isn’t, therefore, a tradition ab antiquitate that certifies her cult. Therefore, the initial documents have to be considered the acts relating to the finding of her body and the beginning of the marvellous “signs” offered to her devotees.
Since the finding of her body, an extraordinary presence of Saint Philomena in the Church has begun at all the religious and social levels. All Popes since have venerated her (chapters 5-7) with public documents and personal devotion. In addition there has not been one catholic, however simple or sophisticated, King or Queen, who has not felt her beneficial influence (chapters 4-7).
She has been a model of spiritual life for many Saints, Blessed and Venerable (chapter 7).
For this reason, the great devotion toward Saint Philomena has spread all over the world and Pontiffs have granted the Saint the “Liturgical Cult” with Mass and its own Office.
Archaeological and theological values
The fundamental theological value of the continuous cult concerning our Saint has not ignored the archaeological problematic, although it has not been conditioned by it. The Pontiffs who have confirmed the devotion and the liturgical cult of the Saint knew the issue very well. Enlightening, in respect to this, is Saint Pius X’ comment: “How come they do not realize that the great argument in favour of the cult of Saint Philomena, is the curate of Ars? Through her, in her name, thanks to her intercession, he has received countless graces, continuous prodigies. His devotion to her was very well known by everybody. He continuously recommended her […]. It has been ascertained that the soul that inhabited these sacred remains was a pure and saintly soul that the Church has declared the soul of a virgin and martyr. This soul has been so loved by God, has been so much appreciated by the Holy Spirit, that it has obtained the most marvelous graces for those who recurred to her intercession”.
Regarding the archaeological question, it is necessary to note that after the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites of 1961, Father Anthony Ferrua S. J., professor of the Gregorian University, in 1963, on request of Mons. Luigi Esposito, Rector of the Sanctuary of Mugnano, studied the three slabs with the epigraph, elaborating on his qualified tests of November 29, 1963, the results of which confirm the absolute legitimacy of the cult of our Saint.
This report is kept in the archive of the Sanctuary of Mugnano and we hereby transcribe it for the interest which it holds.
“I have examined with diligence the three slabs which sealed the burial niche of Saint Philomena and have come to the following conclusions:
These were inscribed on the ground before they were placed on the opening of the mortal niche or before the slabs were placed on it with the mortar lime. This can be ascertained from the fact that in more than one place the lime covers the edges of the inscription.
This particular easily explains the fact that the three slabs were plastered to the niche in the incorrect order. That is, one of the three first instead of last, as is well known.
This happened by mistake of the fossor, who was completing the niche, and probably could neither read nor write. Errors and transpositions of this kind are often found in regard to the clos¬ing of the catacomb niches, and the fact that the fossors often did not understand Latin has been widely proven. The opinion of Marucchi that the three slabs with the inscription come from another tomb and were fixed to the second one in that incorrect order is not sustainable to indicate that the epigraph did not belong to it:
In that case there would be visible traces of the second lime mortar. The ones now visi¬ble, and these are numerous, all belong to the first closure.
In the passage from the first to the second use there would have been some visible signs of chipped edges on the slabs; in particular two of them appear to have been cut from a full slab, and today they still preserve their lines of fracture sharp and intact.
Often bigger marble slabs (being valuable material) are reused, but this is not the case with small stone slabs, especially if already inscribed. Besides, wanting to prevent the possibility of a mistake, the normal procedure would have been followed, placing the written side on the inside (as was often done with large marble slabs to reuse them) and this way it would also have avoided the inconvenience of having to apply new lime over old.
Lastly it would be strange and surprising if all three stone slabs had previously belonged to the same sepulcher.
Conclusion - the theory suggested by Marucchi is quite clearly far-fetched and contrary to the old fossors’ ordinary way of proceeding; from the actual tests carried out it has to be consid¬ered not true.
Delahaye has given a negative compliment to the worthy archaeologist when he said that “le savant archéologue n’a rien écrit de mieux” “the wise archaeologist has never written anything better”. (An. Boll. 24, 1905, p. 120).
In other words, in the famous controversy which this point raised between Bonavenia and Marucchi, who is right, is the former (cfr. G. BONAVENIA, Controversy about the famous epi¬taph of St. Philomena, Rome 1906 and the Purely archaeological and historic-archaeological question of the Philomenian controversy, Rome 1907). To this conclusion have come two archae¬ologists Prandi and Mustilli with the approval of M. Guarducci (Graffiti of Saint Peter 1, p 501)”.
Decree exam of the Sacred Congregation of Rites of 1961
An article of “L’Osservatore della Domenica (The Sunday Observer)” dealt with the problem caused by the decree of 1961: the removal of the Saints from the liturgical calendar. The position taken by the author was very cautious and he tried to highlight that the document did not want to declare the inexistence of some Saints, but simply wanted to make the liturgical calendar more in keeping with the “catholicity” of the Church, therefore it was necessary to include only the Saints that would represent the universality of the Church and the multiplicity of the local Churches.
The problem about Saint Philomena is slightly different because the sentence of the decree is “Festum Sanctae Philumenae expungatur a quolibet calendario.”
In reality, Saint Philomena did not question the calendar catholicity. However, being a Saint known and venerated all over the world, she was entered only in the liturgical calendars of the dioceses where the cult was very much alive.
It is probable, therefore, that the decree had wanted to question the existence of the Saint in spite of the numerous miracles taking place through her invocation. To confirm this hypothesis there is the question-answer of the article author. Question - “What if some of these Patrons had never really existed?”. Answer - “As the cult of the Saints is generally a veneration that aims, ultimately, to the glorification of God, so is the invocation. We pray to the Saint so that she will intercede to God in our favour. This is the meaning of the Christian prayer. And if a Saint never really existed, God would still be able to see the faith of whoever is praying, and listen to the invocation.”
After the decree of 1961the problem of the true interpretation of the document for faithful and their pastors began.
What was the meaning of the decree? Did it want to take a stand on the Philomenian question, coming to the conclusion that the Saint did not exist? Did it just want to remove her from the liturgical calendar? - but she was already not in it! Did it want to remove the “liturgical feast”, granted by the other Pontiffs after having carefully examined the first grade miracles accomplished? In this case, why act like this, since the Saint did not crowd the liturgical calendar? The answer given by the article reviewer and the general reaction of the faithful and their pastors makes us assume that the decree on this subject was not clear. This generated agonizing questions both in the souls of the ordinary believer, and in the ones of the theologians and pastors. Can God really permit that a multitude of faithful be bewildered, obtaining miracles from non-existent Saint? Is this not deception by God? Would God have permitted a ghost to be a model for many Saints-blessed and venerable and also a multitude of faithful? Would God permit for over 150 years, all the Popes (as many as eight) to widely promote the cult of Saint Philomena with Solemn Decrees and with personal veneration, if only in the presence of a popular devotion?
With this anguish in their hearts the attempt began by the faithful to have an official interpretation of the decree.
Msgr. Luigi Esposito wrote, “In April 1961, the Bishop of Nola, Mons. Adolfo Binni, wanted a Commission formed by the undersigned, the General Vicar and by the local priests to go to Rome to ask what line of conduct was to be followed. We presented our case, pointed out the Pontifical concessions and above all the reasons from which these had been motivated. We were answered, ‘Just do as before’…”.
What does “Just do as before” mean? Maybe that Saint Philomena could remain in the diocesan liturgical calendar and in the calendar of the dioceses to which had been granted permission? That it was possible to continue, according to the previous Pontiff Decrees, with the Mass and the own Office? The answer seemed to contradict the expungatur a quolibet calendario of the Decree.
Msgr. Esposito, not happy about the verbal response, put forward a written questionnaire to the Congregation of Rites. This is how he describes it - “In 1964 with the visto from the diocesan Bishop, I submitted a questionnaire asking for an authentic interpretation of the disposition - “Festum autem S. Philomena…” and precisely if with that disposition had been removed only the liturgical cult or every kind of cult. The answer was - The liturgical cult has been revoked, the popular cult has been left unchanged. The Saint can be venerated and can be honored even with the external feast and with the Mass from the Local Council”.
The written reply modifies in part the verbal answer and, in turn, seems to undo some of the concessions that the previous pontiffs had solemnly granted.
From what has been said it seems that the conclusion regarding the expunction afore-mentioned concerns, the “feast” and not the Saint and that the Decree does not take a position regarding the dozens of Brief Apostolics that the High Pontiffs, from Leo XII to Pius XI, have emanated.
Pastoral theme of this script
The decree of 1961 has produced different reactions in the souls of the faithful and of their pastors. In some of them, after an initial period of confusion, it has had the effect of being unexpected, causing aversion and suspect towards the Sacred Congregations which, with little tact, had withdrawn what they had earlier powerfully supported. For these faithful Saint Philomena is in their hearts, even if remembering and venerating her opens an emotional scar that, nevertheless, they firmly dismiss. In others, it has provoked the effect of paralyzing their impulse of devotion towards the Saint.
In others still, it has led them to underestimate the extraordinary intervention of God in this story, or to be stricter extensors of the decree, so that they have done everything they could to eliminate the devotion for Saint Philomena or to let it extinguish itself naturally.
We therefore have two fundamental attitudes - 1) the position of those who keep on venerating Saint Philomena and, feeling like second class children, await better days so that the honor of the Saint can be brought back to its old splendours; 2) the position of those for whom Saint Philomena does not exist, therefore it is necessary to tolerate her cult until it will extinguish itself.
In truth, the cult of the “Young Saint”, far from extinguishing itself, increases more and more, creating problems of not easy solution. One example, which we report here will be enough to explain.
In Mysore, in India, the city’s Cathedral, an Orphanage, a Secondary School, and the University are all named for Saint Philomena. Every year for the feast of Saint Philomena there is a confluence of around forty-thousand faithful.
Unfortunately the relic of the Saint that was in the Church was stolen and the Bishop of Mysore is very cautious about asking for another from Bishop of Nola.
There is, however, the decree of 1961 which tells us not to promote the devotion to the Saint, even if there is a population that has great faith toward Her.
We relate his letter, which shows his embarrassment in requesting the relic of the Saint:
“Your Excellence, in 1964 I met you during the Vatican Assembly II and I asked you about the devotion towards Saint Philomena in Mugnano. I still remember that you said, with wry humour that after the decree of the Sacred Congregation which removed Saint Philomena from the liturgical Calendar, you had met His Holiness Paul VI and that you had asked him what could be done for the people of your diocese, upset after the decree of the Saint Congregation regarding Saint Philomena.
Seems that the Holy Father told you not to trouble him or your people, and you told me that the devotion to Saint Philomena carried on as before.
The reason I am writing to you these few lines is to ask you a favour. We had a relic of Saint Philomena in our cathedral. The cathedral has been dedicated to Saint Philomena and the whole Indian population used to come in pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Saint Philomena with great faith. ` Unfortunately a non believer has stolen the relics and we do not know how to get them back.
Considering that Mugnano is the centre from which the devotion to Saint Philomena spread throughout the world, I am sure that there is a relic of Saint Philomena available in Mugnano.
I would greatly appreciate it if you could send me, through the Orsoline sisters of Bergamo, a relic of this Saint, for this kind favour I will always be grateful.
With feelings of deep gratitude and in union of prayers,
Yours fraternally in our Lord”
Mons. M. Fernandes
Bishop of Mysore
If there had not been the problem of the decree and its interpretation, the request would have been much more linear and simple.
The prayer I have written for the bicentenary of the arrival of Saint Philomena’s body in Mugnano, amongst other things says:
“Philomena, witness to the light of Christ, I give thanks to the Holy Spirit because for many centuries the power of your faith has been kept hidden, leaving your sacred body in the cold darkness of Priscilla’s catacombs. I give thanks to God Our Father, God Our Son and God Our Holy Spirit for having allowed doubts about your existence and sanctity, even on behalf of pastors of the Mother Church, occasion to strengthen my belief that God is Father both when I feel his caresses that consoles me, and when I experiment his rough hand that makes me suffer”.
The problem about Saint Philomena reveals the mysterious ways in which God sometimes moves.
To the faithful is allowed:
- the veneration of the Saint;
- faith to pray to her and rejoice in her graces;
- the humility to work so that science will sustain their faith, like it seems to be doing;
- to work assiduously so that her devotion can continue;
- glorify God for the graces that they receive from Saint Philomena;
- stimulate the ecclesiastical hierarchy to take into consideration the devotion to the Saint. But without minimizing their intervention in God’s people and keeping in mind the results that the modern science puts at their disposal.
Both the faithful devotees of the Saint, and the Christian critics doubtful about her existence must be able to reason with maturity. We are not adolescents who are fighting for supremacy; we are men looking for the mystery of God even in the semidarkness of historic events. Only by reasoning as adults will we be able to discover the meaning of the events that surround the figure of Philomena.
The Christians who do not believe in the existence of the Saint are asked to:
- be more doubtful towards dominant tendencies
- remember their critical sense when the church emits religious documents
- avoid placating rationalization like the affirmation that God can work miracles even deceiving his children
- avoid diminishing the importance of the many miracles God has granted through the intercession of Saint Philomena just because there might be some doubt about one or two.