Philomena and the Coptic Church

This article will address whether ‘Saint’ Philomena, is a saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and whether she should be venerated as such. Someone may ask why this article is necessary, when an elementary search in the Coptic Orthodox Synaxarium,[1] manifests that there is no trace of a saint by the name of Philomena.

The answer to this question is that sadly the veneration of Philomena is starting to manifest itself in Coptic Churches all around the world. How can someone who is not a Saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church, start to have her icons displayed and sold, her biography sold and her relics venerated in Coptic Churches?

Before we attempt to answer the above questions, it will be helpful to know a little bit about the history of Philomena.

We read from the Catholic Encyclopaedia the following:

“On 25 May, 1802, during the quest for the graves of Roman martyrs in the Catacomb of Priscilla, a tomb was discovered and opened; as it contained a glass vessel it was assumed to be the grave of a martyr. The view, then erroneously entertained in Rome, that the presence of such vessels (supposed to have contained the martyr’s blood) in a grave was a symbol of martyrdom, has been rejected in practice since the investigations of De Rossi. The remains found in the above-mentioned tomb were shown to be those of a young maiden, and, as the name Filumena was discovered on the earthenware slabs closing the grave, it was assumed that they were those of a virgin martyr named Philumena. On 8 June, 1805, the relics were translated to the church of Mungano, Diocese of Nola (near Naples), and enshrined under one of its altars. In 1827 Leo XII presented the church with the three earthenware tiles, with the inscription, which may be seen in the church even today. On the basis of alleged revelations to a nun in Naples, and of an entirely fanciful and indefensible explanation of the allegorical paintings, which were found on the slabs beside the inscription, a canon of the church in Mugnano, named Di Lucia, composed a purely fictitious and romantic account of the supposed martyrdom of St. Philomena, who is not mentioned in any of the ancient sources. In consequence of the wonderful favours received in answer to prayer before the relics of the saint at Mugnano, devotion to them spread rapidly, and, after instituting investigations into the question, Gregory XVI appointed a special feast to be held on 9 September, “in honorem s. Philumenae virginis et martyris” (cf. the lessons of this feast in the Roman Breviary). The earthenware plates were fixed in front of the grave as follows: LUMENA PAX TECUM FI. The plates were evidently inserted in the wrong order, and the inscription should doubtless read PAX TECUM FILUMENA. The letters are painted on the plates with red paint, and the inscription belongs to the primitive class of epigraphical memorials in the Catacomb of Priscilla, thus, dating from about the middle or second half of the second century. The disarrangement of the inscription proves that it must have been completed before the plates were put into position, although in the numerous other examples of this kind in the same catacomb the inscription was added only after the grave had been closed. Consequently, since the disarrangement of the plates can scarcely be explained as arising from an error, Marucchi seems justified in concluding that the inscription and plates originally belonged to an earlier grave, and were later employed (now in the wrong order) to close another. Apart from the letters, the plates contain three arrows, either as a decoration or a punctuation, a leaf as decoration, two anchors, and a palm as the well-known Christian symbols. Neither these signs nor the glass vessel discovered in the grave can be regarded as a proof of martyrdom.”[2]

This account from the Catholic Encyclopedia was written by Fr. Johann Peter Kirsch, a Catholic Priest, Church historian and Christian archaeologist.[3]

A few points to ponder from Fr. Johann’s account of Philomena are as follows:

  1. There was a glass vessel found in the grave, which led them to assume this was a vial with blood of the martyr. De Rossi, a famous Italian Archaeologist[4], rejected this opinion and proved it false.
  2. There is no historical evidence of who this person was. But a based on the “alleged revelations to a nun in Naples, and of an entirely fanciful and indefensible explanation of the allegorical paintings, which were found on the slabs beside the inscription… a purely fictitious and romantic account of the supposed martyrdom of St. Philomena” was construed. If the Catholic encyclopaedia calls this entirely “fanciful,” “indefensible” and “purely fictitious”, why in the world do Copts believe this story? Do Copts even know the Catholic nun who had this purported vision? Do they know of this nun’s holiness, or character, to simply believe her vision and thus base their entire belief in Philomena, and her life story, without any historical evidence?
  3. Another Italian Archaeologist Oracio Marucchi[5], believed the tiles that had the name Philomena on them, were from an earlier grave and had been re-used.
  4. The Encyclopaedia concludes: “Neither these signs (by signs are meant the plates containing symbols of three arrows, a palm, and anchors) nor the glass vessel discovered in the grave can be regarded as a proof of martyrdom”. If the Catholic Encyclopaedia states this, then how can Copts just accept she is a saint and martyr? What evidence do they have for this belief?

With all the above being said, some Copts believe that Philomena is an actual Saint in the Catholic Church. They point to Catholic Churches being named after her, many books being written about Philomena, and many miracles being attributed to her. They thus either deny the account written in the Catholic encyclopaedia above as an attack against Philomena or are ignorant of this account altogether.

Someone may ask, why the Catholic Church has named Churches after Philomena, if the Catholic Encyclopaedia has rejected her Sainthood. The sad truth, is that after the relics were found, and the fanciful vision about her life story was spread among the laity, many Catholics believed Philomena was a Saint and started to venerate her,[6] also many people reported miracles that occurred through her intercession.

We also know that several Catholic Popes venerated Philomena as a Saint,[7] even though there was no historical evidence to validate whose remains these were, and in opposition to the opinions of the archaeologists and historians mentioned above.

This shows the great danger of believing that miracles alone are a sign that someone is a Saint. Won’t the Anti-Christ perform miracles? Should we believe he is a Saint, or even the Messiah, if he performs miracles? Are miracles and visions enough to make someone a Saint?

So why does the Catholic Encyclopaedia disagree with several Popes that venerated Philomena, along with the many Catholics that consider her a saint? Why this divide among the Catholic faithful?

Well, many Catholics believe that great caution needs to be taken before naming someone a Saint. They cannot just believe in miracles and visions, as authoritative signs proving someone is a Saint. More evidence is required.

I’d like to also explore the actual vision of this Catholic nun, what she saw, and who she claims Philomena to be. Her full story and the full vision can be found from a website dedicated to Philomena’s veneration.[8]

Sister Maria Luisa di Gesu claims Philomena came to her and told her she was the daughter of a Greek king who converted to Christianity. When Philomena was 13-years-old, she took a vow of consecrated virginity.

After her father took his family to Rome to make peace, Emperor Diocletian fell in love with Philomena. When she refused to marry him, she was subjected to torture. Philomena was scourged, drowned with an anchor attached to her, and shot with arrows. Each time she was attacked angels took to her side and healed her through prayer.

Finally, the Emperor had Philomena decapitated. According to the story, her death came on a Friday at three in the afternoon, the same as Jesus. Two anchors, three arrows, a palm symbol of martyrdom, and a flower were found on the tiles in her tomb, interpreted as symbols of her martyrdom. The nun’s account states Philomena was born on January 10 and was killed on August 10.

If Philomena was a Greek princess who was martyred by Diocletian, why is there no historical record of this courageous and amazing martyrdom? We have countless martyrdoms recorded under Diocletian, of people who were of much lower social status than this so called Greek Princess. Why was this martyrdom not recorded by anyone at that time? She would have been famous as a princess. Surely someone would have known and written the account of her martyrdom. Surely we wouldn’t need to hear about it through the vision of a Catholic nun in the 19th century.

Compare the lack of literary evidence, to that of a Coptic Saint and Martyr Mena. The University College of London states:

“There are many sources written in different languages (Greek, Coptic, Old Nubian, Ethiopic, Latin, Syriac, Armenian) relating to Saint Menas. However, much of their information seems contradictory. It is therefore difficult to gain a clear picture about Menas. The following seems assured:

Menas was a Roman soldier stationed in Phrygia. He abandoned his unit and converted to Christianity. On the 15 Athyr 296 AD he died as martyr and was buried at Mareotis, not far from Alexandria. On this day the Coptic church commemorates Saint Menas. His burial place became one of the most celebrated places of pilgrimage in Egypt, and was adorned with important buildings.

The early development of his cult remains little known. A first healing was a crippled youth, who slept at the grave of Menas and became cured. Ampullae, which were often found in Egypt, were used by pilgrims to carry water or oil home from the tomb of Saint Menas. He is always shown between two camels, the animals that, according to the legend, returned his body to Egypt for burial.”[9]

Here we see biographies of Saint Mena appearing in 7 different languages. Yes, allot of information may seem contradictory in these accounts, which is a normal phenomenon in lives of Saints, being recounted around the world, and having fanciful information added at times by their writers, but we still get a clear picture of who St Mena was, consistently from all the manuscripts

To add to the literary evidence, we have countless little clay bottles (ampullae) on which his name and picture are engraved, dating from the 4th to 7th century.[10]

St Mina was a soldier, not a Greek princess, yet his martyrdom and veneration spread rapidly in the Early Church, straight after his martyrdom.

Could the martyrdom of a Greek Princess have gone totally unnoticed and absolutely forgotten?

Several historians have denied the veracity of the vision of the Catholic nun. Dr. Warren H. Carroll, a leading Roman Catholic historian, author, and the founder of Christendom College, supported the article of Fr. Johann Peter Kirsch’s in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, which stated Philomena is not a saint. When someone attacked the content of the article, Dr Warren stated the following:

“I stand by the authority of the old Catholic Encyclopedia on this issue. You have no proof for your accusations against the author of this article nor sources for what you claim to be the negative view of the Encyclopedia by Pope St. Pius X. As an historian, I am satisfied that this article is historically correct.”

Cathy Caridi, an American Catholic Canon Lawyer, who practices law and teaches in Rome, has written an article, demonstrating that Philomena was never actually canonized by the Catholic Church, thus stating emphatically she is not a Saint in the Catholic Church.[11]

I’ve listed a few excerpts below:

“Many Catholics erroneously believe that Philomena used to be a saint, and was somehow “decanonized” by Pope John XXIII in 1961. In fact, the action taken that year by the Congregation of Rites [they removed her name from a local calendar that was venerating her as a saint]—which back then had jurisdiction over matters pertaining to the canonization of saints—actually clarified and made more consistent the canonical status of the person commonly known as “Saint Philomena,” which up to that point had been quite confused. But the surprising refusal of some lay-Catholics to accept the Vatican’s pronouncement has subsequently caused the confusion surrounding Philomena to be greater than ever! Since she is wrongly regarded as an early Christian Martyr Saint…”

“There is no literary evidence of any martyr (or any other early Christian for that matter), with this name (Philomena). The names of hundreds of early Christian martyrs are included in early liturgical calendars, the story of their lives (exaggerated or not!) are recounted in collections of saints’ lives from the early Middle Ages or even earlier, and archaeological evidence often exists that shows these saints were already being venerated in the year following their deaths, by persons who would have direct personal knowledge of their lives and their martyrdom. But among all the documentation, you will search in vain for even one mention of anybody named “Philomena”. In fact, this may actually not be the name of the person in the tomb at all, for the Greco-Latin roots of the word simply mean “lover of the light”, and thus the tomb inscription may have been intended as a description of the deceased person rather that her personal name.”

“Since nothing at all was known about this person, the Catholic Church understandably could not, and therefore did not, canonize her when her body was discovered. Indeed, no canonization process was ever initiated on her behalf – for the documentary evidence requires to support such a case simply does not exist.”

“… the Catholic Church does not canonize saints based on information from dreams or visions. This isn’t a recent decision, either: one of many councils of Carthage, in about 401 A.D., reprobated the erection of altars to and the veneration of anybody as a saint based solely on “dreams or other foolish so called revelations.”

From the above excerpts, Cathy, an expert in Canon Law, makes it abundantly clear that Philomena was never canonized in the Catholic Church, there was not enough evidence to proclaim her a Saint. Dreams and visions are not enough.

Sadly many Catholic’s do not care enough about historical evidence and still venerate her. How can we as Coptic Orthodox Christians start to venerate someone, who has nothing to do with our tradition, who has no literary evidence to prove her existence, and whose life story comes from a vision of a Catholic nun, of whom we know nothing about?

Will we be careful and follow the lead of our Holy Tradition in this matter, which does not mention this Saint at all, and also the professionals such as historians, archaeologists, and a Roman Catholic canon lawyer, who deny the evidence to support this person is a Saint? Or will we believe a vision of a nun, and miracles? Sadly too many people today are led by their emotions and not by facts and truth.

We as Coptic Orthodox Christians would be very wise, to follow the lead of our own Tradition, and the truth and facts regarding Philomena, and remove any icons, books and any other traces of her presence, from our Churches, until evidence arises that can lead our Holy Synod to declare her a Saint.

If we do otherwise, we water down our own title as “Orthodox”, which is a title based on tested historical truths and not on dreams and visions.












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