In the nineteenth century, the figure of Philomena, a young roman martyr, spreads and conquers hearts. This cult expands rapidly after about seventeen centuries of silence. This can be attributed to the renovation of that century, which if on one hand has heritage of the French Revolution and the loss of Christianity in the European society, on the other hand it was rich in spiritual movements of “New Evangelisation” with the formation in the whole of Europe of missionary congregations, which spread all over the world, from the Americas to the Far East.
Some exponents of this renovation were attributed to the new “young saint”, Saint Philomena, whose relics were transferred from Rome to Mugnano del Cardinale (Avellino), where they arrived on August 10, 1805.
Many devotees trusted her protection and, of these, we remember Pauline Jaricot, founder of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and the Living Rosary; the young John Maria Mastai Ferretti, who will become Pope with the name of Pius IX and will be beatified; the shy priest John Marie Vianney, the Cure of Ars, singled out by St Pius X as the guarantor of Saint Philomena. They were all seriously ill and were perfectly cured from their illnesses as a result in their faith in Saint Philomena. They will become important instruments of the Divine Providence in the Church life, as far as the Earth’s extreme boundaries.
The “dies natalis”
The latin term dies natalis (day of birth) indicates the day in which the saint moves from the earthly life to the eternal one.
The earthly/natural life is the starting point for aspiring to the celestial/supernatural life, which is possible by virtue of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. An earthly life spent observing the precepts of the divine commandments leads to eternal life. For a martyr, we can affirm what St. Ambrose wrote to the young martyr St. Agnes: “Martirem dixi, satis dixi”, which means: “having said martyr, I’ve said everything”.
There are no biographic records of Saint Philomena. Her life, as a matter of fact, begins with the finding of her body and with the beginning of the signs to her devotees. Therefore, the first records about the Saint are the ones that start with the finding of her tomb in Priscilla’s catacombs, to the translation of her body to Mugnano del Cardinale and the beginning of her providential influence in Church life.
The attempt to write a resounding biography of Philomena has to be considered as an inspired devotional act by the ancient passions of real or presumed martyrs of the early Christian period. Her arrival at Mugnano will give birth to a season of graces and miracles, confirmed by pontifical documents, from Leo XII to Pius XI, who will accompany the spreading of her cult. In this way the XIX century is enriched by yet another supernatural intervention that will strengthen the ecclesiastic life projected into the third world in the company of martyrs and confessors.
Symbols on the tomb
On the three stones that sealed the tomb, as well as the inscription
“ LUMENA – PAX TE – CUM FI”
there were the following symbols:
- two anchors
- three arrows
- a palm
- a lily
What’s striking is the richness of the symbology. The first terracotta tile was walled in the wrong order, altering the exact inscription which is PAX TECUM FILUMENA (fig. 4).
Fig. 4 – The three stones that sealed Saint Philomena’s niche in Priscilla’s catacombs. Initially kept in Rome, Pope Leo XII on July 21, 1827 donated them to the Sanctuary of Saint Philomena. In Mugnano ,they were solemnly displayed for public veneration of the faithful on August 4, 1827. Apart from the writing, what is striking is the richness of the symbols: two anchors, three arrows, a palm symbol of martyrdom, a flower. In the registers of the Lipsanoteca it’s specified that the signs which identify the tomb of a martyr “are only the vase with the blood, in glass or in terra cotta, the palm engraved on the sepulchre itself or on the sealing lime, or an inscription stating the martyrdom”. Externally, on the tomb of Saint Philomena, there is the palm symbol of martyrdom and inside the glass vase with the blood, which, as we will see in the next chapters, has been subjected to the most rigorous exams.
Finding of the body
The finding of Saint Philomena’s body happened on May 25, 1802, which was the second year of Pius VII’s pontificate.
On May 24, 1802, the fossors who worked to free Priscilla’s catacombs from materials and rubble built up over the centuries had reached its centre, not far from the Greek Chapel, very close to the skylight (fig.5). One of them, who remains unknown, when removing the soil from one of the tunnels, hit some tiles which had kept a niche closed.
Fig. 5 – The catacombs of Priscilla: the Greek Chapel near the niche in which the body of Philomena was found.
This location gives us reason to believe that Philomena was a martyr of the post-apostolic period.
On these tiles, in a perfect state of preservation, there was drawn a palm, one of the signs or symbols of martyrdom.
Following the instructions received by Mons. Ponzetti, the worker stopped and went to report his finding to Fr. Filippo Ludovice, a second caretaker.
On May 25, 1802, Ludovici, accompanied by many witnesses, one of whom was another priest, went down in the catacombs and, under his supervision, the fossor kept digging, finding the funeral stone of a small tomb which looked like one of an adolescent.
It was made of three tiles on which was the writing: “LUMENA – PAX TE – CUM FI”. Also there were engraved two anchors, three arrows, a palm, and a flower. In the niche there was also a broken vial, containing a blackish, dried up residue (fig.6). The venerable relics were carefully wrapped in five wrappers and stored in a duly authenticated wooden box. They were transferred with the usual formalities to the Relics Treasury in Rome, while the tiles were transferred first to the College Massimo of the Jesuits in Rome and then to the Museum of the Christian Antiquities in the Vatican.
Fig. 6 – The glass vase, containing blood, which was found inside the tomb of Saint Philomena. The presence of a vase containing blood is a sign that the tomb was of a martyr. After the decree of 1961, some people insinuated that there were perfumes in the vase and not blood. In 2003, the Rector of the Sanctuary, Msgr. Giovanni Braschi, had some micro-fragments of the glass vial contents collected and analyzed with the most modern and infallible methods. These tests confirmed, without doubt, the presence of blood in the vial.
Donation of Saint Philomena’s body to priest Don Francesco De Lucia, through Mons. Bartolomeo De Cesare, Bishop of Potenza.
In 1805, Don ( Fr. )Francesco De Lucia, a young priest of Mugnano del Cardinale of the Diocese of Nola, was in Rome accompanying Msgr. Bartolomeo De Cesare, parish priest of Sant’Angelo a Segno in Naples, future Bishop of Potenza, whose consecration was expected on June 30th. Don Francesco nourished the wish of having the body of a “Saint Martyr and with a Name”, that is someone whose name was well known and guaranteed, to take to his oratory in Mugnano. In the realization of this wish he was helped by the new Bishop, his friend, who introduced him to Msgr. Giacinto Ponzetti, caretaker of the Sacred Relics, in order to make his aspiration possible.
Msgr. Bartolomeo De Cesare had been instructed by Ferdinand IV, King of Naples, to pay his respects to Pius VII who had just returned to Rome from France where he had crowned Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor (Paris 1804).
At the meeting, Msgr. De Cesare informed the Pontiff about the wish and urgency of Don Francis De Lucia. Pius VII was moved and donated the body of Saint Philomena. To overcome the legal difficulties according to which a martyr’s body, of whom the name is known, could only be donated to a Bishop, the body of Saint Philomena on 8th June 1805 was donated by Msgr. Ponzetti to Msgr. Bartolomeo De Cesare who donated it to Don Francesco De Lucia.
From Rome to Mugnano, via Naples
In Rome on June 30, 1805, there was a celebration of Paul the Apostle. Don Francesco De Lucia was attending the Episcopal consecration of his friend Msgr. Bartolomeo De Cesare. On the first of July, the new Bishop and his priest friend left Rome with the Saint’s relics. They reached Naples with the precious load on July 2, 1805. They brought the sacred relics to the house of a friend of Msgr. De Cesare, a very well known bookseller of the city of Antonio Terres. Msgr. De Cesare, with the authorization of Msgr. Vincenzo Torrusio, Bishop of Nola, officially recognized the sacred relics, and then placed them in the private chapel of the Terres’ house.
Once the news spread, there was a massive rush of the faithful. To avoid disorder, the remains of Saint Philomena were displayed for the first time to public veneration in the parish church of Sant’Angelo a Segno, where they remained for three days.
The night of August 9th, the sacred relics left for Mugnano and arrived there the morning of August 10th. And were placed in the Church of Our Lady of Grace (fig.7). Since the wonders happening were many and the number of devotees kept increasing, the Bishop of Nola invited Don Francis De Lucia to abandon his idea about storing the relics in his oratory.
Fig. 7 – Mugnano del Cardinale: the Sanctuary of Saint Philomena, where the sacred body of the Martyr is kept. It is visited by pilgrims from all over the world.
A Church of Our Lady of Grace was built in Mugnano which now contains a chapel where the sacred relics were translated on September 29, 1805, and where they still remain. That chapel has been constantly redecorated and embellished over the years(fig.8).
Fig. 8 – The Chapel, in the Church of Our Lady of Grace in Mugnano del Cardinale, where the sacred relics of Saint Philomena’s body are kept.