Today, All Souls Day, I would like to write about my mother Filomena Cristeta de Irureta Goyena de Hayward
For anybody who may have gleaned any of my past blogs they know I do not hide the fact that I was baptized and confirmed as a Roman Catholic. My grandmother was especially devout.
When it came time to find me a high school when I finished my 8th grade in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila my mother found St. Edward’s High School in Austin. I was a boarder for four years. Even then I was aware that the Brothers of Holy Cross (the same as those in Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana) were terrific teachers. I bonded with many of them and in particular Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C. (in Latin those initials stand for congregation of the Holy Cross) who became my mentor and model for the rest of my life until he died in 2013. I find it comfortably outstanding that he met my two granddaughters and my Rosemary.
Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C. Obituary
Brother Edwin Charles Reggio, C.S.C. Mentor
I have an ultra Roman Catholic relative in Buenos Aires who left the Opus Dei (yes they do exist) because it was not conservative enough for him. He does not even attempt to discuss Catholic Doctrine with me as he knows my knowledge of it is better than his.
At my age of 79 I would not reveal here what I believe or don’t believe.This is personal.
But I would like to mention here (with an almost smile) how sometime in 1961 my mother told me, “Today I found out I do not have a patron saint. It seems that Filomena never existed!”
By 1970 my mother was almost deaf because her hearing nerves were being destroyed by the debilitating Meniere’s and she experience a constant ringing and horrible moments of vertigo.
She died in 1972, at age 59, in the joint presence of Rosemary and me. A few months before she had told me, “I believe in God but I have lost my ability to pray as I do not think that this God intervenes in our affairs. He is remote.” I did not know how to comfort her. I was heartbroken.
Because of the existence of Google I was able to verify what had upset my mother in 1961
Professing Faith: The strange story of St. Philomena
This week marks the annual commemoration of one of the most popular — and the most quirky and therefore the most interesting — of the saints recognized in modern times. Her cult is perhaps highly debatable, it is popular and it is unusual.
This is the devotion to the Roman-era saint Philomena. And what is interesting about her is not what she did, but what people have said about her.
Her traditional day is Aug. 11.
Here are the basics. In the early days of Christianity, the saints who died at the hands of the imperial Roman government were carefully recorded and remembered by the Christian community. Hundreds of Italian and Greek churches are built on top of the graves of the early martyrs, and some are recorded in the lives of the saints and some are mentioned in the ancient Roman canon of the Mass, such as saints Laurence, Chysogonus, Agnes and so forth. These early martyrs hold a certain place on honor in the Catholic Church right down to the present day.
In the year 1802, some reconstruction was done on the tomb of St. Priscilla, in the city of Rome, who was one of these early Roman era martyrs.
However, while the workers were digging, they cracked into another ancient tomb, which was hitherto unknown. Upon inspection this tomb contained bones identified as those of a female between the ages of 12 and 15. On the walls of the tomb were various Christian symbols — two anchors, a lily, a palm and three arrows.
Historians were consulted and it was affirmed that these were certainly Roman-era religious symbols. The anchor was routinely used in graves of martyrs for the faith, as were the arrows and the palm, while the lily was used to designate devout virgins.
Baked clay tiles gave the inscription of “lumena, pax te. Cum fi.” “Pax te” means “peace be with you.” The remainder of the inscription could be the name Filomena or in English Philomena. This is all the ancient Roman Christians left to us, along with her bones.
There were some problems with this discovery. While the carefully preserved bones and the well-built tomb suggested someone of importance and the art clearly attested to a Christian martyr for the faith, there were absolutely no records, secular or religious, about any “saint” Philomena in any religious history. Nowhere in any of the Vatican archives or in any known hagiography, of which there are many, are there documents regarding any known St. Philomena. She is absolutely unknown, not mentioned at any point in recorded history.
This is not to say she was not a saint; it is just problematic than nobody heard of her until 1802. This is where her story gets interesting.
In the year 1805, a young Italian priest named Father Francesco de Luca, who served a parish in Mugnano in the diocese of Nola, approached the Vatican and asked for the body of a saint to be given to him to establish a shrine in his otherwise obscure parish. This was a difficult request, as the relics of most saints were buried in churches and cathedrals long ago and only long after were recognized as authentic saints.
There was simply no stack of holy corpses lying around in the Vatican waiting for shrines.
However, Father Francesco had contacts in the Vatican, who told him of this otherwise unknown Philomena, and Pope Pius VII gave permission for the priest from Mugnano to remove her bones to his church for burial. This was accomplished on Sept. 29, 1805. Her bones remain there in a special shrine in Mugnano to this very day.
What is interesting about this story is that no sooner were her bones given a special shrine than alleged miracles began to be reported left and right. If we are to believe the early 19th-century stories, cripples who visited the shrine walked, the blind received their sight, addictions were undone and relationships in families were healed.
When the local bishop of Nola wanted to give fragments of her bones to all of the parishes in his territory, the story goes that her relics multiplied and more than enough bone fragments were available for all the congregations that wanted them. Such stories tend to strain the credulity of even the most devout of the modern faithful.
Among “saint” Philomena’s earthly friends was an odd but interesting assortment of people. Pope Gregory XVI allowed the Diocese of Nola to commemorate Philomena in their liturgical calendars on Aug. 11. Another one of her fans was Father John Maria Mastai Ferretti, who later became Pope Pius IX. Another of her devotees was Father John Marie Vianney, the Cure de Ars, the beloved confessor of thousands who was later widely acclaimed as a saint in France.
Yet another of Philomena’s fans was Father Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, from Riese, Italy, who was later elected as Pope Pius X, which was later still canonized as a saint.
In 1933, a devout nun in Naples declared that she had a vision that informed her that St. Philomena had been a Greek princess who was murdered in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and this witness did much to popularize her cult.
At the very least, the newly discovered Philomena had good friends in the modern church. There is no question that because of these ecclesiastical leaders’ support, her following in the 19th and early 20th century was widespread and popular. Holy cards, medals and devotions to St. Philomena were commonplace.
But there remained a problem in the church. Philomena, whatever her popularity, had never once been recognized a legitimate Catholic saint.
Although a number of official liturgical books referred to her as a saint, no decree from any pope or council ever declared her an official saint. The most exacting modern research has yet to discover any ancient record of the existence of this young woman. Various modern historians have challenged her existence citing that many Roman-era tombs were recycled for generations and there was no way to know if the bones of “Philomena” were the actual bones of a real martyr.
From the perspective of professional historians, there is very little reliable evidence for Philomena’s existence.
In 1961, in an effort to curb superstition, the Vatican and Pope John XXIII ordered Philomena’s name removed from all official calendars as a saint.
Pope Paul VI continued this policy, deleting a number of other “questionable” saints, including St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, and St. Barbara, the patron saint of fireworks.
One Catholic wag declared that when Pope Paul went to heaven, these saints would be waiting for him with large sticks to give him a good thrashing for removing them from the official calendar of saints. This author is sure there are no thrashings in heaven, but it’s a colorful line.
And yet, who are we modern sages to say that the devotions of the ordinary humble people who believed in St. Philomena are wrong? If devotions to this otherwise unknown Roman teenage girl brought solace to a suffering soul, who am I to say her cult did not have value?
The Latin proverb “Vox populi, vox dei” or the “Voice of the people is the voice of God” has some merit here.
That said, there is one more possibility here. Perhaps she really did exist, after all.
Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest.