Spotlight on: Philomena

This was yet another reader request, and I’m really glad for it, because Philomena’s kind of a funny duck.

On the one hand, there aren’t a whole lot of names that are exclusively Catholic. I mean, I claim lots of names as ours, for impeccable Catholicky Catholic reasons, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world agrees. But when it comes to Philomena, I think the whole world *does* agree: it’s Catholic. Catholicky Catholic. Oozing Catholic cachet. Do you agree?

The funny part is, though St. Philomena is the source of our love and devotion for this most Catholic of names, she’s no longer on the liturgical calendar, having been removed in 1961 at the directive of Pope Paul VI because of lack of historical evidence.

Is this news to any of you? Because it was to me when I first found out from the mama of this consultation a year ago. Up until I then, I was blissfully ignorant, and from what I can tell, much (most?) of the Catholic world is as well.

So this is the story, according to this site: In 1802 a tomb was discovered with an inscription that could say “Pax Tecum Filumena” if the words were reorganized, and inside was the skeleton of a 14-year-old girl and a vial of her dried blood. Then:


I don’t think “since the 1960’s, she has been almost forgotten” is totally accurate, both because I know there are people still bestowing her name on their children, and because of the laity perhaps not being totally clear on what exactly the Church was saying.

From what I can tell, the Church isn’t saying she’s not a saint. This article made a good argument (though based on research that the author doesn’t link to so I can’t verify):

Now, a question that must be addressed in this essay is what the Sacred Congregation of Rites said in regard to Saint Philomena. They removed the feast of Saint Philomena from the calendar based on the lack of historical evidence for her existence. It is very important to note at this point that the Congregation of Rites did not have any ecclesiastical power of any kind. It was only a “liturgical directive”. This directive however left many people confused, and rightfully so. In fact, it left bishops concerned too. Bishop Sebastião Fernandes of Mysore, India, whose cathedral was consecrated in Philomena’s honor, sent a letter to Pope Paul VI in 1964. This correspondence was sent to Mugnano by Bishop Fernandes as follows:

“What must I do for the people in my diocese who are greatly troubled by the decree of the Sacred Congregation regarding St. Philomena?” Paul VI responded, “Do not let it disturb you and do not disturb your people; let devotion to St. Philomena continue as before” (proseguiva come prima)[vi].

These words should be a comfort to those who have faith in the intercession of Saint Philomena, and reinforce the notion that devotion to her has never been officially abolished or suppressed.”

I love what now Bl. Paul VI’s response was! I also love this from that same site:

We have the bones of a young girl, we have a grave that shows the marks of martyrdom, and we have more approved miracles coming from the intercession of this saint than most canonized saints of our times. What does it matter if her original name was Philomena or not? Does it matter whether or not we have no historical documents to prove her existence? No! We have papal approval, and we have miracles. The only way to deny the existence of Saint Philomena is to deny that the miracles which catapulted her to public veneration just 35 years after her buiral discovery in Rome. I assure you, venerating Saint Philomena will be most providential for your soul, for she is powerful with God. Saint Philomena, pray for us! For the glory of God, and the salvation of souls, Amen.”

I like how he says, “What does it matter if her original name was Philomena or not?” I’ve often had the same thought about Sts. Joachim and Anne — we get their names from the Protoevangelium of James, which is not canonical, so there’s a chance those aren’t the names of Mary’s parents, but so what? If they’re not, we have no others to put in their place, and Mary DID have parents, so why not remember them as Joachim and Anne? When we think of their names, we’re thinking of them, you know? This site gives some more really good info, including:

[To St. Pio] St. Philomena was the “Princess of Heaven”. After the liturgical reform of 1961, Father Pio used to imperatively reply to whoever dared to doubt the existence of the Saint: “for the love of God! It might well be that her name is not Philomena, but this Saint has performed many miracles and it is not the name that did them.” This is the wisest reply: who wants to understand, will understand!

Speaking of whether Philomena was actually the girl’s name or not, the name itself has a beautiful meaning. The site I just cited says, “The name Philomena (fee-lo-MAY-nah) is of Latin origin. The inscription on the original loculus tiles, is Filumena. The word filia is Latin for daughter. The word, lumena, is Latin for, light, lamp, lantern; light of day; the eye; clearness; understanding,” while Behind the Name says, “From Greek φιλος (philos) “friend, lover” and μενος (menos) “mind, purpose, strength, courage” … [Filumena] may have in fact been a representation of the Greek word φιλομηνη (philomene) meaning “loved”.” So whichever of those is correct, they’re all beautiful meanings for a little girl and easily full of faith significance if you so desire.

St. Philomena certainly has a history of love in the Church, by Popes and Saints even, and with the name having the Catholic cachet it has, I still think it’s definitely a beautiful name for a Catholic family to consider. Do you agree?

There are the spellings Philomena (English, German, Greek) and Filomena (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch), and I myself go back and forth as to which spelling I prefer. There are also loads of nickname options, which I’ve mentioned before: Fia, Fila, Fina, Finn, Finna, Lola, MenaMinnie, Pia, Pim, Pina, and Pippa. Each one so darling!

I’d love to know you what you all know about St. Philomena! Especially if you have any further light to shine on the subject from sources that aren’t critical of various Popes and the Church (I found too many of those when I was doing this research).

And tell me also your thoughts on the name — would you/have you considered Ph/Filomena for a daughter? Which spelling do you prefer? Do you know any Philomenas? Do they like their name? Do they go by a nickname?


25 thoughts on “Spotlight on: Philomena

  1. I find this so fascinating! There’s a parish in my home town (not mine) called St. Philomena so I’ve just always assumed that she was a Saint!! I like the idea that it doesn’t really matter if it was her real name or not what matters is the intention. I think that in a way, because the world sees Philomena as a Catholic name, then it is a Catholic name, just by association, if that makes sense. Kind of like how there’s nothing in the world that actually says double Mary names (like Mary-Margaret, Mary-Claire) are Catholic, but the association is that they are.

    I definitely love the name Philomena, but feel like it’s a little “much” for me to ever use for a child. My grandpa’s name is Philip, so I have thought about it before as an honoring name for him, even though they aren’t technically connected

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  2. Until you mentioned it earlier in that previous post, I was not aware of an “question” or controversy. And I had only in recent years become acquainted with her patronage and intercession stories (via learning through life of St. John Vianney and his devotion to her). I find her fascinating and the devotion lovely. Everything about her is beautiful from the intercessory and miracle stories to the symbolism associated with her to her name itself. It has much symbolic meaning.

    In looking at the question and evidence, it is clear to me that she falls in the same type of category as other saints who have been removed from the liturgical calendar. Though her situation was earlier (by about 8 years) there were many saints also dropped in 1969 with the promulgation of the new calendar – included there were St. Barbara, St. Christopher, St. Margaret of Antioch, and others.The Church is not saying that they are not saints, they are not suppressing devotion or veneration, but are for reasons of lack of historical information, removing them from the calendar, and saying historically we don’t know much if anything. There are still official shrines/sanctuaries for her. The Universal Archconfraternity of Saint Philomena is still recognized and promoted by the Vatican. She is still recognized as the Patron Saint of the groups Universal Living Rosary and the Propagation of the Faith.

    Something interesting I found was that St. Cecilia could have been in the same boat as St. Barbara and St. Christopher in 1969 – but by reason of her popular devotion she remained. Though her existence and martyrdom are confirmed little else of the stories can be. So we take much of our knowledge of early saints on faith and the fruits that come from them.

    I probably would not have used the name (as a firm name anyway) because to me it is strongly ethnic – would have associated it with old immigrant ladies – and that was not my style, especially if the ethnicity was not in our family heritage. But that being said, I think it is so pretty and love to see it bestowed on little girls.

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  3. Had to leave for a bit so didn’t finish all I was thinking about.

    Regarding the idea that it isn’t really her name – it is a title name and that is not unheard of among other saints. For example St. Christopher is also a title name “Christ Bearer” – the actual name of the saint is not known – there is speculation as to some possibilities. So I think “daughter of the light” is a great title name. Or if you go Greek something with love and courage – perfect.

    And I think the name Philomena/Filomena fits in well with current popular names which I consider similar – Seraphina/Serafina, Sofia/Sophia. Frankly, I associate them all with Italian grandmas…lol, but like that they are coming back.

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  4. This reminds me of a homily battle two chaplains at my college had on the subject. One, an old-school Jesuit, preached about the importance of avoiding superstition and said St. Philomena did not exist. The other, a very gung-ho Norbertine, came into the pulpit the following Sunday and referenced “St. Philomena the Great” several times. (I don’t remember what his homily was actually about, just that he specifically called her “the great.”) These two were sort of notoriously rivals on a number of obscure theological topics, so we all just kind of grinned and bore it, but the way I figure, if the traditional St. Philomena didn’t really exist, surely at least one woman named Philomena went to heaven at SOME point, and I’m sure she’s more than happy to answer the petitions directed to the “traditional” Philomena.

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    • I agree! If there wasn’t a Saint Philomena already in heaven, probably at least one of the many Philomenas that were named after that devotion is in heaven by now!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hahaha I love this!! I totally agree — “surely at least one woman named Philomena went to heaven at SOME point, and I’m sure she’s more than happy to answer the petitions directed to the ‘traditional’ Philomena.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My great- grandmother, who lived next door to us, was named Philomena. She went by Phyllis – it was common for immigrants to take an anglicized name. But I love Philomema and would love to use it for a girl – I’d probably call her Mena for short. My great-grandmother was always praying her rosary, and would tell me to “kiss the Blessed Mother” whenever I was in her garden, where she had a statue of Mary. I think these influences played a big role in my reversion after being raised Protestant – anyway, I have a soft spot for Philomema, recognized saint or not. 🙂 Definitely an old Italian lady name, but some of those are the best. (Emmanuella is another favorite in that category – it was my grandmother’s name, anglicized to Emma.).

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  6. I did know this about St. Philomena, though I can’t remember when or where I first heard it. Interestingly, I share your thoughts about the names of Sts. Anne & Joachim, because I actually don’t put much stock in the Protoevangelium of James—I think there are reasons it’s never become “officially” canonical. (Such as, it claims Mary was a consecrated virgin to the temple, only that was a pagan practice, not a Jewish one.) So I don’t know if I trust its report about her parents’ names. However, she definitely had parents and these are the names we know them by, so it really doesn’t bother me. That said, for some reason, it DOES bother me with the name Philomena, even though it’s not logical! Philomena’s not really my style—like skimac, it feels too “ethnic” for me—but even if it were, I’m not sure I could get past this for naming my child, even though it 100% does not bother me with Anne & Joachim. So silly.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks so much for this truly informative post! I had actually thought about requesting this exact topic myself. 🙂 I love the name Philomena, but the confusion around her saintly status had thrown me off in the past. Another question I had: is the pronunciation “Phi-lo-MAY-na” the only correct one? I always read it as “Phi-lo-me-na” but that might just be me/my own wishful thinking, since I like that pronunciation better.

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  8. I love the name and meaning. Thanks for further clarification. i actually would love to use it, especially with so many pretty nickname options, but our last name starts with “Phil…” Sigh.

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  9. In Ireland, Philomena is mainly an older name that hasn’t been included in the revival of trendy old-style names, so it does have that association for me. I like the ‘mena’ part of it but not the ‘Phil’. Mina would be a lovely nick name for it.

    I read somewhere that the meaning of the name could be considered ‘beloved’, as some apparently interpreted the inscription of Philomena on the tomb to be an address to the reader, as in, ‘here lies the beloved…’ Don’t know how accurate that is though.

    I knew a lady whose given name was Rose Philomena and contracted both those names into Romena.

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