When Saint John Vianney (whose feast day is August 4) attributed miracles to the intercession of the martyr Philomena, was it really her prayers that healed people, or was it due to Saint John’s prayers? Fr. George Rutler, in his charming book The Cure of Ars Today, delicately raises the question of whether Saint John was deflecting attention away from the power of his own prayers by crediting an early Church martyr instead. To answer that question, it would be helpful to examine the lives of both of these saints first.
Saint John Vianney (1786-1859) was a French priest who was famous during his own lifetime for spending many hours every day in the confessional and for his ability to read the consciences of his penitents. But despite the fact that he was well-known all over France, he strongly resisted secular fame, lived a strict and ascetic personal life, and rejected any insinuation that he might be responsible for the occasional miracles that seemed to result from his prayers for the sick and needy. Instead, he pointed to Saint Philomena. Who was Philomena?
On May 24, 1802, an examination of the catacomb of Saint Priscilla in Rome had unearthed a damaged inscription on a tomb. The broken skeleton of a teenage girl was found inside the tomb, and it appeared that the girl’s name was Philomena. The fact that a small vial (which had apparently contained blood) and a palm symbol were present on the tomb strongly indicated that she was a martyr. But no other information was found, and her relics were merely catalogued with those of many other Catholics buried in the catacombs. A few years later, a priest came across the relics of Philomena and said that he experienced a feeling of “great joy”. Convinced that Philomena was a powerful saint in Heaven, he had her relics enshrined in a parish church in Italy. Miracles followed. Saint John was not the only person in the early nineteenth century who became convinced of the power of Saint Philomena’s prayers, but he was certainly one of the most famous and the most vocal in encouraging others to seek her intercession.
But this is not the first time that a holy (living) person has had a great devotion to a (deceased) saint of the Church and has directed all the credit for possible miracles toward that saint. For example, the humble Brother (now Saint) Andre Bessette (1845-1937) from Canada attributed the intercession of Saint Joseph for the many healing miracles that occurred when people asked for Andre’s prayers. A less well-known saint, Theodore of Sykeon in Turkey (d. 613), had a great devotion to the early Church martyr Saint George and was known as a miracle worker; Theodore’s prayers even healed the emperor’s son from leprosy on one occasion. Saint Gemma Galgani, a young woman who lived in nineteenth century Italy, claimed that Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows (a saint from her own hometown) interceded for her miraculous cure from spinal tuberculosis. Which saint was responsible for those inexplicable events?
In some ways, to ask whether it was Saint John or Philomena who was the true miracle worker is a ridiculous question. As Fr. Rutler and any good Catholic could easily point out, the saints are just human beings have no supernatural power of their own. Our requests for help from any saint in Heaven rests on the simple fact that that saint is in Heaven, looking upon the face of God. As we Catholics have to explain to our Protestant brothers and sisters, we ask for the saints to help us precisely because they are closer to God than we are, not because they are gods themselves.
Perhaps the Church has already discovered the best way to settle this situation, as it does in every canonization process. The Church waits until after the death of a person and examines the “fruits” of that person’s life, both before and after death, before making a statement about whether the person was holy or not. Although the pope can waive the requirement for a miracle to raise a holy person from the rank of Venerable to Blessed and to Saint, the requirement is there for a reason. If, for example, a woman gave birth to her child, saw that her son was not breathing, and then prayed fervently and incessantly for a particular deceased bishop to intercede with God to save her child from death, and then if that child inexplicably woke up after not breathing for an hour, one would have good reason to believe that the bishop she called upon was already in Heaven. That’s what happened to Bonnie Engstrom, and that’s why we should have good reason to believe that Venerable Fulton Sheen will be named Blessed Fulton Sheen at some point.
Unfortunately, like Fulton Sheen, Philomena is not officially Saint Philomena in the eyes of the Church yet. That is, she is not listed in the Martyrologium Romanum, the official calendar of saints and blesseds in the Church. After all, it is difficult to be certain of her status as a martyr based solely on strong feelings, an image of a palm branch, and an empty vial.
But to focus on whether or not Philomena is a canonized saint is to miss an important question: why does God permit miracles to occur when we call upon the names of holy men and women in the first place? When God allows a baby to come back to life, a sick person to recover from a fatal illness, a teenager to get out of his hospital bed after a deadly accident, right after someone has begged for Saint John or Philomena or Fulton to beg the Lord for healing for their loved one, then He is teaching us important lessons about holiness. He is reminding us that death is not the end for a Christian and that saints still care about and love us even from Heaven. And perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is that we should want to walk in the footsteps of these holy men and women, lead holy lives, and beg the Lord to rain down miracles when we (God willing) get to Heaven.
Saint John Vianney and Philomena, pray for us!