Philomena – Part One.

The name, or a variation of it, first appears in the history of Ancient Greece - referring to the years 700-480 B.C.

Recently, I got interested in my namesake Philomena.  Philomena was a recognised saint and martyr of the Catholic church. That's why the name is / was popular in Ireland and I have since discovered in Scotland as well.
Before the onset and spread of Christianity in Europe, the name ‘Philomela’ had originated in Ancient Greek mythology. Philomela was the younger of two daughters of Pandion Ist, King of Athens, and the ‘naiad’ Zeuxippe. A ‘naiad’ was a female deity, a nymph, associated with water, especially a spring, stream, or other fresh water. The name ‘nymph’ being from the aquatic larva (nymph) of a dragonfly or damsel-fly. Also from any of various aquatic plants of the genus ‘Najas’.

Her sister, Procne, was the wife of King Tereus of Thrace. Philomela's other siblings were Erechtheus, Butes and possibly Teuthras. 

In the Greek legend, Philomela was raped by her sister, Procne’s husband, Tereus. He had visited their father, Pantheon 1st and promised to take Philomela to visit her sister. However, upon arriving in Thrace, he forced her to a lodge in the woods and there he raped her. After the assault, Tereus threatened her and advised her to keep silent. Philomela though, was defiant and angered Tereus, saying she would reveal what had happened to her father. In a rage, he cut out her tongue and abandoned her in the lodge.

Rendered unable to speak because of her injuries, Philomela wove a tapestry that told her story and had it sent to her sister Procne. Procne was furious. In revenge, she and her remaining sister killed her son, Itys. She then boiled him and served him as a meal to her husband. After Tereus had eaten Itys, the sisters presented him with the severed head of his son. As soon as he became aware of their conspiracy and his cannibalistic meal, he grabbed an axe and pursued them with the intent to kill them. They fled, but were almost overtaken by Tereus at Daulia in Phocis. In desperation, the pair prayed to the gods to be turned into birds and escape Tereus' rage and vengeance. The gods transformed Procne into a swallow and Philomela into a nightingale. Subsequently, the gods would transform Tereus into a hoopoe.

In Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses’, Philomela's defiant speech is rendered (in an 18th-century English translation) as:

Still my revenge shall take its proper time,
And suit the baseness of your hellish crime.
My self, abandon'd, and devoid of shame,
Thro' the wide world your actions will proclaim;
Or tho' I'm prison'd in this lonely den,
Obscur'd, and bury'd from the sight of men,
My mournful voice the pitying rocks shall move,
And my complainings echo thro' the grove.
Hear me, o Heav'n! and, if a God be there,
Let him regard me, and accept my pray'r.

From an ancient picture - Procne and Philomela sitting opposite each other, circa. 630-625 BC   -


Philomena – Part Two

The name, Philomena comes from a young woman, born in Greece c. 291 AD and moved to Italy where she died c. 304/5 AD. She is believed by some to have been a Christian martyr, hence her later being classified as a saint.

The discoverers of Philomena’s tomb on May 24, 1802, in the Catacombs of Priscilla on the Via Salaria Nova  had described an inscribed ‘loculus’ (a space hollowed out of the rock) On the following day it was carefully examined and opened. The loculus had been closed with three terracotta tiles, on which was the following inscription: ‘lumena paxte cumfi.’ It was and still is generally accepted that the tiles had not been positioned in the sequence of the words, and that the inscription originally read, with the left-hand tile placed on the right: “pax tecum Filumena “(Peace be with you, Philomena). Within the loculus was found the skeleton of a female between thirteen and fifteen years old. Embedded in the stone was a small glass phial with vestiges of what was believed to be blood. In accordance with the assumptions of the time, the remains were taken to be those of a virgin martyr named Philomena.  The tomb was decorated  with a palm, one of the symbols of martyrdom.

Philomena, in Christian society known as Saint Philomena, was a later use of the name, which translates in English as Philomel. The name originated in the legend from Ancient Greece and meant ‘nightingale’ and ‘beloved’.  

Those who believe in the sainthood of Philomena believe that originally, she became the only person recognised as a Saint solely on the basis of ‘miraculous intercession’ -  i.e. praying for a Holy figure, Saint, or God to help you. A prospective candidate is made a Saint by being canonised through a formal papal decree that the candidate is holy and posthumously rests in heaven with God. The Pope makes the declaration during a special mass in honour of the new Saint. A formal request for an individual to be considered for sainthood is submitted to a special Vatican tribunal.

It is believed, by some, that information about Philomena’s role as a Saint was received in a private revelation to her by God.  Nothing much from historical sources is known about Philomena, except her name and what is thought to be the evidence of her martyrdom and subsequent Sainthood. She is believed to have been martyred at about the age of 14 in the early days of the Church.

What  is known about St. Philomena's life comes from a Neapolitan nun's vision. Sister Maria Luisa di Gesu claims St. 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 with the Emperor Diocletian, the Emperor fell in love with Philomena. When she refused to marry him, she was subjected to torture and finally death.  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. Her fate was, apparently, gruesome. After nearly 40 days in prison, Philomena was tied to a post, flogged, and left to die in her jail cell. But angels appeared from heaven and healed her wounds with a miraculous balm. So, the Roman Emperor then ordered to have her drowned with an anchor tied to her neck !!.

Those who believe in the sainthood of Philomena believe that originally, she became the only person recognised as a Saint solely on the basis of ‘miraculous intercession’ -  i.e. praying for a Holy figure, Saint, or God to helpyou. A prospective candidate is made a Saint by being canonised through a formal papal decree that the candidate is holy and posthumously rests in heaven with God. The Pope makes the declaration during a special mass in honour of the new Saint. A formal request for an individual to be considered for sainthood is submitted to a special Vatican tribunal.

Nothing much else from historical sources is known about Philomena, except her name and what is thought to be the evidence of her martyrdom and subsequent Sainthood. 

In my novel relating to an Irish girl, Aoife Ryan, I refer to her life both in the modern world of the mid 20th century and her links with characters from The Celtic Otherworld. From childhood Aoife meets with characters from the Otherworld – the Goddesses Aoife (after whom she is named) as well as Banba, Epona and Aoife’s lupine protector, the shape-shifting wolf, Faoladh.

Aoife spends a school summer holiday with her Mam’s sister, her Aunt Brigid, in Norfolk. There she learns of Brigid’s former lives, both as a goddess from The Otherworld and as the 5th century Saint, Brigid. The name Brigid was used in Irish mythology and Irish people were familiar with her and her qualities as a Goddess. As Christianity took hold (after St. Patrick arrived on the shores of Ireland), the name became associated with a holy woman who became a Catholic saint. The link between the ancient pagan world and the modern world was helped by reference to characters such as Philomena and Brigid, who were, by name, associated with both cultures.

My Catholic mam and myself (aged 12) were horrified when in 1961 Philomena was, apparently, ‘de-canonised’ by the Catholic church. There were claims from scholars of that time that the proof of her existence as a 3rd century virgin Christian, was lacking. Since then there have been arguments on both sides which continue until this day. I am amazed at the wealth of information available. Partly, because of the debate around her sainthood, I like to believe that at least she existed ! A question seeking an answer iis: Are the subsequent miracles, which are been believed to have happened, thanks to her saintly intervention or just in the recipients’ imaginations ?

PICTURE: Impression of Philomena's tomb - artist unknown


Part Three

The Miracles of Philomena

The plaster cast of Saint Philomena in the Museum Gherdëina in Urtijëi, Italy.

The picture of the plaster cast shows St. Philomena with her attributes: anchor, two arrows, palm, lily and whip. The figures on the stone are believed to be symbols of her life story :

  • The first is an anchor; the symbol, not only of strength and hope, but also of martyrdom.


  • Two arrows, arranged so that the first one points upward and the other, downward. The repetition of this symbol might mark a repetition of the tortures to which Philomena was subjected. The discovery of many of the instruments of torture employed to worsen the sufferings of the martyrs, gives us some idea of what they had to endure.


  • The third is a palm, placed almost in the middle of the stone. It is the sign, and herald of a brilliant victory gained over the cruelty of the sentence for Philomena and its results.


  • A lily, the symbol of innocence and virginity.


  • A whip – a kind of lash, used to scourge criminals, which was made of thongs of leather, loaded with lead.

The explanation of the symbols comes originally from the 19th Century by an unknown author and is now published in ‘The Life and Miracles of St. Philomena, Virgin and Martyr (p. 48). Joan and Thérèse Publications’.

We know that Philomena’s remains were moved to Mugnano del Cardinale in 1805. In that year, Canon Francis de Lucia of Mugnano, Italy was in the Treasury of the Rare Collection of Christian Antiquity (Treasury of Relics) in the Vatican. When he reached the relics of Saint Philomena he was suddenly struck with a spiritual joy, and requested that he be allowed to enshrine them in a chapel in Mugnano. After some disagreements, settled by the cure of Canon Francis following prayers to Philomena, he was allowed to transfer the relics to Mugnano.

There, the remains became the focus of widespread devotion. Over subsequent centuries, several miracles have been credited to Philomena's intercession.

This includes the much publicised case of the healing of Pauline Jaricot in 1835. 

PICTURE: (Pauline Jaricot - 1799 – 1862)

Miracles began to be reported at the shrine including cures of cancer, healing of wounds, and the Miracle of Mugnano in which the Venerable Pauline Jaricot was cured of a severe heart condition overnight. After being miraculously cured Pauline Jaricot insisted that Pope Gregory XVI begin an examination for the beatification of St. Philomena, who was to become known as the "wonder worker". After hundreds of other miraculous cures, she was beatified in 1837. Beatification is a recognition, accorded by the Catholic Church, of a deceased person's entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in their name.

Her popularity soon became widespread, with her most memorable devotees being St. John Vianney, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, St. Peter Eymard, and St. Peter Chanel.

The first of these, John Vianney, was a French Catholic priest. He attributed Philomena’s intercession to the extraordinary cures that others attributed to him. The spread of devotion to her in France, as well as in Italy, was helped when he built a shrine in her honour. He became venerated as Saint John Vianney. In this role he became the patron saint of parish priests. He is often referred to as the "Curé d'Ars" (the parish priest of Ars in France). He became internationally known for his priestly and pastoral work in his parish. In this work, he was believed to have caused the radical spiritual transformation of the whole community and its surroundings. Catholics attribute this ability to his saintly life, mortification and his persevering ministry in the sacrament of confession, as well as his ardent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. His feast day is August 4.


PICTURE:  John Vianney (1786 – 1859)

From 1837 to 1961, celebration of Philomena’s liturgical feast was only approved for ‘some places’, but, interestingly, was never included in the General Roman Calendar for universal use. The 1920 typical edition of the Roman Missal included a mention of her, under August 11th, in the section headed “Missae pro aliquibus locis” (Masses for some places), with an indication that the Mass to be used in those places was one from the “common virgin martyr’, Philomena, without any direct reference her as a Saint. This is why the question of her sainthood arose.

On 8th June 1805, Canon Francesco De Lucia of Mugnano del Cardinale had requested Philomena’s relics for his oratory. He did obtain the remains that had been discovered in May 1802. However, sadly, by then, they had been reduced to dust and fragments. The relics arrived in Mugnano on August 10th, and were placed in the Church of Our Lady of Grace. A new Church of Our Lady of Grace was built, containing a chapel to where the sacred relics were moved on September 29th, 1805.

In 1827, Pope Leo XII gave to the church in Mugnano del Cardinale the three inscribed terracotta slabs that had been taken from the tomb. Filomena da Roma is mentioned in an account written in 1833, ‘Relazione istorica della traslazione del sagro corpo di s’. In it, a Canon De Lucia recounted that wonders accompanied the arrival of the relics in his church, among them a statue that sweated some liquid continuously for three days.

A miracle, accepted as proved in the same year, was the multiplication of the bone dust of the saint, which provided for hundreds of reliquaries (relics) without the original amount experiencing any decrease in quantity !!  In some accounts there was a quotation from the bible:

"Ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will send spirit into you, and you shall live." Ezechiel. xxxvii. 4, 5. (i)

(i)The prophet Ezekiel is the author of the old testament book of Ezekiel. Writing from a first-person perspective, Ezekiel recorded the visions and revelations he received from the Lord. Ezekiel was a priest who was among the Jewish captives carried away to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in approximately 597 B.C.

On December 21, 1833, the Holy Office declared that there was nothing contrary to the Catholic faith in the revelations that a Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù, a Dominican tertiary from Naples, claimed to have received from Philomena herself.

According to Sister di Gesù, Philomena herself had appeared to her and told her she was the daughter of a king in Greece who, with his wife, had converted to Christianity. At the age of about 13, she took a vow of virginity for Christ's sake. Sister di Gesù told her own version, as told to her by Philomena in a vision, of the life and fate of the young Philomena when she refused to marry the Emperor Diocletian.  Philomena also revealed that the symbols that had been found on the tiles in her tomb were to be interpreted as signs of her martyrdom.


PICTURE: Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù (1799–1875),

In the nun’s account, Philomena also revealed that her birthday was January 10th. Her martyrdom occurred on August 10th. This was also the date of the arrival of her relics in Mugnano del Cardinale. Her name "Filumena" meant ‘daughter of light’. This was from the Latin words ‘filia’ and ‘lumen’. However, it is more usually now taken to be derived from Greek φιλουμένη (philouménē ), meaning ‘beloved’. The publication of this nun’s account gave rise to critical study both of her account itself and of the many archaeological finds, leading to uncertainty as to whether Philomena’s supposed tomb was that of a martyr at all.

Devotion to Philomena includes the wearing of the "Cord of Philomena", a red and white cord, which had a number of indulgences attached to it, including a plenary indulgence on the day on which the cord was worn for the first time. There is also the chaplet of Saint Philomena, with three white beads in honour of the Blessed Trinity and thirteen red beads in honour of the thirteen years of Philomena's life. A sacramental associated with the hallow is the Oil of Saint Philomena, which is used for the healing of the body and soul. These indulgences were not renewed in ‘Indulgentiarum doctrina’, the more recent, 1967, general revision of the discipline concerning them.

Philomena’s Canonisation

 Statue of Saint Philomena in the Church of Our Lady (Obere Pfarre) in Bamberg, Germany.

On January 30, 1837, in the aftermath of the cure of Pauline Jaricot, Pope Gregory XVI authorized liturgical celebration of Philomena on August 11th, first in the Diocese of Nola (to which Mugnano del Cardinale belonged), and soon in several other dioceses in Italy.

On January 31, 1855, Pope Pius IX approved a proper Mass and office dedicated to Saint Philomena.

In August 1876, the first issue of ‘Messenger of Saint Philomena’ was published in Paris, France. On October 6, 1876, Father Louis Petit founded the Confraternity of Saint Philomena in Paris. In November 1886, the Confraternity was raised to the rank of Archconfraternity by Pope Leo XIII.

On May 21, 1912, Pope Pius X raised it to the rank of Universal Archconfraternity with the Apostolic Brief Pias Fidelium Societates stating, with regard to the historical authenticity of Philomena, that: "The current statements (regarding St. Philomena) are and remain always fixed, valid and effective; in this way it has to be judged as normative; and if it is proceeded in another way, it will be null and void, whatever its authority".

The name Philomena was not included in the Roman Martyrology, the official list of saints recognized by the Catholic Church and in which the Saints are included immediately upon canonization. In a 1920 edition of the Roman Missal, Philomena is mentioned, under August 11 as her feast day.

On February 14, 1961, the Holy See ordered that the name of Philomena be removed from all liturgical calendars that mentioned her. This order was given as part of an instruction on the application to local calendars of the principles enunciated in the 1960 Code of Rubrics, which had already been applied to the General Roman Calendar. A section of this document ordered the removal from local calendars of fourteen named feasts, but allowed them to be retained in places that had a special link with the feast. It then added: "However, the feast of Saint Philomena, virgin and martyr on11th August, is to be removed from all calendars. No suspension or prohibition of the Archconfraternity was issued. The explanation given was that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Philomena had once existed. In the light of this, they were worried that her life story, martyrdom and sainthood could be conceived as being based on mere superstition. This went against the Church’s belief that saints had to have been real, devout Catholic people. Characters seemingly based purely on tales from legend or mythology could not be included.

Despite this, there were many who continued to believe in her saintliness. For example, a priest, Damien of Molokai,(1840-1899) who had a strong devotion to Philomena, named his church at Kalawao, Hawaii, in honour of her.

Many other saints have also been devoted to Philomena, including Peter Julian Eymard, Peter Chanel, Anthony Mary Claret, Madelaine Sophie Barat, Euphrasier Pelletier, John Neumann and Anna Maria Taigi.

I have mentioned that I was myself, in 1961, as a 12 year old, along with my Irish mam, shocked when the Holy See instructed to remove the name of Philomena even from local calendars. She was, we believed, in effect, de-sainted. My mother was not pleased either ! The decision had followed the raising of questions by certain scholars, whose interest had been drawn to the phenomenon of the revelations of Sister Maria Luisa di Gesù.

 Questions were raised in particular by Orazio Marucchi (1852 – 1931). He was an Italian archaeologist and author of the Manual of Christian Archaeology. He was regarded as a prestigious source. He served as Professor of Christian Archaeology at the University of Rome and was director of the Christian and Egyptian museums at the Vatican Museums. He was also a member of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archaeology and was a ‘scrittore’ (writer) in the Vatican Library.

His conclusions won the support of Johann Peter Kirsch (1861 – 1941), an archaeologist and ecclesiastical historian from Luxembourg, who was the author of an article on Philomena in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

However, according to more recent sources such as Mark Miravalle (born 1959), their conclusions have been rejected by others. Historian Michael S. Carter , another modern historian, professor at the University of Dayton, USA,  supports Miravalle's position. He has written about devotion to Saint Philomena within the broader context of veneration of "catacomb martyrs" and their relics in the history of the United States. Obviously, a contentious subject, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions !

In her 2013 paper, ‘Why is Saint Philomena no longer considered a Saint ?’ Cathy Caridi discusses why Catholics are mistaken in believing that Philomena is, or ever was, a Saint. She maintains that Papal law is clear that canonisation cannot be based on dreams or visions alone. There has to be solid, physical evidence to enable canonisation to take place and this is not available in Philomena’s case. Caridi explains that from the 12th century onward, only The Pope can create saints. Prior to that (as in Philomena’s case) from the 1st century onwards, Christians could be considered martyrs, therefore saints, because of them dying for their Christian faith –usually by being ordered to be killed by Roman leaders. One of Caridi’s arguments against Philomena’s sainthood was that the bodies buried in the tomb in Rome were Christians, but the authenticity of their individual identities was never confirmed.

One argument is that the inscription on the three tiles that had provided the Latin name "Filumena" belonged to the middle or second half of the second century. The body that had been found and named, Philomena, is believed to be of the fourth century, when the persecutions of Christians had ended. Not only the name but also the leaf, the two anchors and the palm that decorated the three tiles, and which had been believed to indicate that Filumena was a martyr, had not necessarily related to the person whose remains were found. The disarrangement of the tiles was something fourth-century sextons regularly did when re-using materials already engraved, with the aim of indicating that it was not the same person who was now buried in the place. Opponents of this view though, suggest that the necessary connection between these symbols and Philomena’s martyrdom has been denied despite evidence to the contrary. In fact, in April 2005, at the Conference of Philomenian Studies from 1805 up until 2005, the findings of a study carried out on the tiles by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro (Factory of Hard Stones and Restoration Laboratories) of Florence were made public. The analysis confirmed that only one type of mortal lime could be found on the tiles, thus giving strong support to the theory that the tiles had not been re-arranged.

The Rector of the shrine in Mugnano del Cardinale disputes these findings. After reporting the decision of the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1961 as resulting from the studies of scholars, recorded in the ‘Enciclopedia Dei Santi’  the Rector says that there still remain the miracles that occurred and the official recognition that the Catholic Church gave in the nineteenth century, the personal devotion to Saint Philomena of popes and people who were later canonised, and the widespread general devotion that still persists, particularly at Mugnano del Cardinale in the Diocese of Nola, where pilgrims from all over the world continually arrive, demonstrating an open display of intense popular devotion.

The website of "The National Shrine of Saint Philomena, Miami, Florida" sees the action taken in 1961 as the work of the devil in order to deprive the people of God of a most powerful Intercessor, particularly in the areas of purity and faith at a time when these virtues were so much being challenged by modern society as they continue to be up until the present time in our selfish, money-orientated societies.

In his book ‘It Is Time to Meet St Philomena’, Mark Miravalle says that Pope Gregory XVI "liturgically canonised St. Philomena, in an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium". This contrasts with the usual view that canonisation is an exercise of infallible magisterium declaring a truth that must be "definitively held".

‘The Roman Martyrology’ contains the names of all the saints who have been formally canonised, since "with the canonisation of a new saint, that person is officially listed in the catalogue of saints, or Martyrology and, as soon as the beatification or canonisation event takes place, the person's name is technically part of the Roman Martyrology". It does not now contain, in fact never included, the name of Philomena, which can be seen to be absent in the 1856 edition published some twenty years after the 1837 decree. Supporters of this argument state that canonisation is a ceremony of the highest solemnity, in which the Pope himself, invoking his supreme authority in the Catholic Church, declares that someone is a saint and inserts that person's name in the catalogue of saints. They argue this ceremony has never taken place with regard to Saint Philomena..............

.The debate continues...........


PART FOUR - Philomena Today

Philomena - Feminist or Victim ?

I was born in 1949, the eldest of three girls. My mam was an Irish Catholic and Dad was an English member of the Church of England, albeit not a regular church-goer. He had a good relationship with the local ‘Rector’ and, as Headmaster of the village school, he conducted daily assemblies when the children sang hymns and generally got ‘sermons’ reminding them about good behaviour and loving your neighbour.

We three children were sent to Mass every Sunday and also attended a Catholic Convent. I think when we were young my mam presented herself as a ‘good’ Catholic, but sometimes took the Church and its teachings with a pinch of salt !  I believe now that our attendance at Mass and being pupils at a convent school was ‘keeping our options open’. Just in case there was a God and Heaven existed we could be proved to be worthy, rather than burning in the fires of hell and being tormented by the devil !!

 Looking back I see my mam as a bit of a feminist, although that word did not exist in our vocabulary at that time. As soon as my youngest sister was 5 years old and began attending school, mam returned to nursing, which had been her career during the War (WW2). and up until I was born. She continued working until 1976. She had begun working as a trainee nurse just before the war broke out in 1939. As an 18 year old she was subjected to having to care for the ‘lads’ that returned from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.There were many horrific injuries. She never spoke of this work to us and I only discovered this experience when I was an adult. To me, therefore, as an independent woman, my mam could be described as a feminist.

Pope Francis, born 17th December 1936, is currently the head of the Catholic Church, the bishop of Rome and sovereign of the Vatican City State. Francis is the first pope to be a member of the Society of Jesus, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first pope from outside Europe since Gregory III, a Syrian, who reigned in the 8th century.

Pope Francis took the name from Saint Francis of Assisi to honour the saint’s focus on the welfare of the poor. To date, many think he has proven to be a kinder, gentler pontiff than some of his predecessors. Voted TIME’ magazine’s ’Man of the Year’, he preaches a gospel of peace, tolerance, and charity. He has rejected many papal luxuries. However, if I consider how rich the Vatican actually is, I believe he could put his money where his mouth is !! His words and personal sacrifice are difficult to take on board if you’re still disenfranchised. Some of my gay friends, for example, will accept nothing less than full credence to their rights —including marriage. Other friends take issue with a man who talks about poverty while the institution he leads holds unfathomable wealth. And then there’s the issue of women.......

After Pope Francis’ recent New Year’s message, with its emphasis on “brothers” and “brotherhood,” many feminists felt that this ‘New Age’ pope was still leaving women out of the picture. Did he actually mean “brothers and sisters” in the way that the word “man” is often used to denote humans of either gender?  Perhaps. Francis has championed allowing women a more active voice in the Church. However, he recently excommunicated an Australian priest, Father Greg Reynolds, for teaching women to ordain themselves. Although Francis believes that women are “fundamentally important,” he stresses that “Women in the Church must be valued not ‘clericalised’.” Why not ?

Failing to empower women in this way enables the narrowing of the church’s’ vision’ and makes it less likely to be a force for good in the world.

In 2020, the Catholic Church took two small (note the word “small”) steps for womankind. Pope Francis named the first woman to a managerial position in the Vatican’s most important office, the Secretariat of State. Later that year, the world’s bishops suggested that the Pope should reconsider a commission he had created, after pressure from nuns, to study the ordination of women as “permanent deacons”. However, before we get excited, these church ministers are only able to perform some of the duties of priests. They are not allowed to say Mass or hear confessions.

Unfortunately, these recent reforms only demonstrate how little power women actually hold in the church. This is despite the fact that they constitute about half of the Catholic church’s 1.2 billion followers ! Not only are women barred from ordination to the priesthood, they are not even allowed to vote at Vatican synods. These important events are held to advise the Pope about current ongoing challenges which face the church.

Some women see this as a slap in the face, ie - increasing hopes for a better deal for women and then pretty well reneging on the promises.

In a recent New Year’s sermon, Pope Francis declared that women “should be fully included in decision-making processes” in the church. Many popes have spoken highly of Catholic women, but by repeatedly speaking warmly of women’s gifts and the church’s need for them, Francis raised our expectations that women would actually be given power. He hasn’t lived up to their hopes.

Catholicism is relegating women to second-class citizenship in the church. Failing to empower women narrows the church’s vision, and makes it less equipped to be a force for good in the world.

The Catholic Church has a long and storied tradition of keeping women in their place—even in relatively modern times. If you have any doubt, I encourage you to read the book and see the movie ‘Philomena’.

‘Philomena’ is based on the ‘lost’ child of Philomena Lee, a 2009 book by BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith. Lee was just a teenager when she met a boy at a fair. Motherless from a young age, she had been raised by nuns and knew nothing of sex or birth control. When she became pregnant, her father, on the advice of nuns, sent her to the convent at Roscrea, where she was forced to give her son up for adoption (the babies and children were actually given to wealthy U.S. families, presumably because of large donations. No investigations were made as to the suitability of these potential foster parents. Philomena was forced to work for four years in a laundry to repay her keep and that of the child. The most terrible thing was that her son was not ‘sold’ until he was 3 years old. By which time Philomena and her child had formed a strong bond.

Eventually, building a life and family for herself, she never forgot her child. Fifty years later, with the help of Sixsmith, she uncovered where he was taken and who he had grown up to be. But it was too late. Her son, Michael Hess, a closeted gay man who had risen to be chief counsel to President Bush, had already died of AIDS.

The new film has created controversy, with some decrying it as a hateful attack on the Church and others complaining that it marginalises actual atrocities committed.

If you’re interested in a much darker study of the Church’s less-than-Christian treatment of unmarried mothers, watch 2002’s horrific film, ‘The Magdalene Sisters’.

 ‘Philomena’ is sensitively directed by Stephen Frears. The screenplay, based on Sixsmith’s book is by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. Coogan also plays Sixsmith. But the star of the movie is Dame Judi Dench as Philomena. She plays the part perfectly. She captures the audience’s hearts with her gentle and tender portrayal.

Steve Coogan, mainly thought of as a comedian, plays his part touchingly, Throught him, Martin Sixsmith serves as the voice of modern thinking about the issue. This is  in sharp contrast to Philomena’s continued Catholic faith.

Sixsmith persudes Philomena to travel to Washington, USA. There, they meet with her son’s co-worker and eventually with his partner. The spirit of the story takes the viewer/reader back to the terrible events at Roscrea, At the end, we see Sixsmith acting upon all the anger we feel on Philomena’s behalf. However, she, as victim of the wrongdoing and the perpetrators, urges him to forgive and move forward. I’m not so sure whether in real life Philomena could be so generous of spirit. I know I couldn’t !

Because her son is dead and there can be no happy, tearful reunion, there is no answer or resolution at the end. The real story is different. Philomena Lee never went to America. In interviews, she says she’ll carry anger and guilt about her child all her life. Questioned by the media, she says she understands why the film had to alter the real events. She explains “It is hard to believe what it was like back then. What we had done was seen as so shameful.”

The Magdalene Laundries were founded following the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922. What I find incredible and horrific is that they existed until 1996 ! During that period in time at least 10,000 girls and women were imprisoned, forced to carry out unpaid labour and subjected to severe psychological and physical maltreatment in Ireland's Magdalene Institutions. When the places were eventually closed, some older victims actually chose to stay with the nuns as they had been there for decades and knew no other life.

We will have to wait and see how and if Pope Francis will bring women into the priesthood. Although, I can’t see that happening any time soon. Meanwhile, Philomena Lee’s story and the movie raise the question of both the reality of the time of the events and the context in which they happened.

Since the film and other investigations have highlighted the horrors of these actions in Ireland, much more has been revealed. Babies murdered and thorn down wells for example. It probably will never be known how many innocent children died and how many women were scarred for life by their experiences.

T he Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters - which was set up to investigate what happened in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes announced the 10,000 deaths as part of the final findings of its nearly six year inquiry.

Around 56,000 people - from girls as young as 12, to women in their 40s - were sent to the 18 institutions investigated, where some 57,000 children were born, according to the report.

One in seven of those children (15 per cent) didn't survive long enough to leave the homes, yet no alarm was raised by the State over the high mortality rates, even though it was "known to local and national authorities" and was "recorded in official publications," the report found.

Prior to 1960, mother and baby homes "did not save the lives of 'illegitimate' children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival," it said.

The report called the infant mortality rates the most "disquieting feature of these institutions."

The Church today has apologised in respect of these appalling acts. Nevertheless, regardless of any ‘important’ roles that women may play in the Church, women still cannot be priests.




What’s so great about virgins ?

Many Catholic women, including nuns, view the world through a different moral lens than church leaders. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents the majority of nuns in the United States, has consistently stressed social justice in its public positions and priorities. Catholic bishops, in contrast, have often emphasised sexual morality in their pronouncements.

In one particularly notable case in 2010, Catholic nuns, including a Sister Carol Keehan, then head of the Catholic Health Association, strongly supported the passage of the Affordable Care Act. She believed in the law’s potential to expand access to health care, considering the healing ministry of Jesus a key part of her gospel values. Keehan even accepted, albeit reluctantly, a compromise with the Obama administration that gave employees of Catholic institutions coverage for birth control. Provided, of course, that the institutions did not have to pay for, or administer it, themselves !

According to Catholic doctrine, priests are supposed to represent the likeness of Jesus, a male figure. The Catholic argument is therefore that women are not suitable to represent the male figure of Christ. Within the Catholic institution, the Pope reinforces what he views as Biblical law, demanded by God. How convenient !

In recent years Pope Francis may have put a woman in a top Vatican role thus apparently demonstrating a greater emphasis on values and beliefs. but this very publicised move, supposedly to demonstrate that ‘times are ‘a’changin’, merely serves to demonstrate how little power all Catholic women as a group hold. Failing to empower women narrows the church’s vision in the 21st century. Also, recently, the world’s bishops suggested that Pope Francis should reconvene a commission he had created, at the urging of nuns, to study the ordination of women as permanent deacons. These are not priests, but church ministers who would be able to perform some of the duties of priests, but not to say Mass or hear confessions. Some would argue that such reforms only demonstrate how little power women hold in the church, bearing in mind that they constitute about half of the Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion followers. Not only are women barred from ordination to the priesthood, they are still not allowed to vote at Vatican synods, convened to advise the Pope about challenges facing the Church.

For female believers, upon his election, Pope Francis raised their expectations that women would actually be given power. Six years later he hasn’t lived up to their hopes. Women are still regarded by the Church as second-class citizens.

Many Catholic women, even including some nuns, appear to view the world through a different moral lens than church leaders. Going back to my convent school days and as a young woman in the 1960s, any talk of sex was not permitted except in a derogatory context.  ‘You’ll go the hell’ was a usual response to any suggestion of such a thing. We were taught that when women married, they were to be subordinate to their husbands ! When I worked for a bank in the late 1960s, only unmarried women were employed. As soon as you married you were expected to leave and be satisfied with home and hearth. In those days, a woman couldn’t enter a pub alone. She had to be accompanied by a man. Otherwise, it was assumed that she was a prostitute touting for business and she would lower the tone of the establishment. So much for social justice and female rights within both business and religion. Even to this day, Catholic bishops have often emphasised sexual morality in their pronouncements.

The split caused between nuns and priests over the issue was so deep that the Vatican, under Pope Francis” , predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, criticised the leaders of the majority of American religious orders of Sisters for espousing “radical feminist” views and ignoring issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

It was Pope Francis who eventually stopped the Vatican’s investigation of the American nuns. That said, today, even with an apparently progressive Pope, women’s priorities are still not fully reflected in long-standing Vatican positions.

So, going back to Philomena, a young 4th century woman. She was only about aged 14 at the time of her death, so we might say of her today, she was a girl, a child. Of course, life expectancy would have been much lower at that time.

The Catholic Church  has told women to emulate such women in terms of protecting their virginity until they were married and being subservient to their husbands when they did.

Several hundred years before Philomena was born, we know of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She has always been portrayed as a woman of purity and lack of sin. This was a model for all women to follow, but makes it difficult to relate to for the 21st century woman. In paintings over the centuries, Mary is often portrayed as a meek and mild lady holding the baby Jesus. She apparently had a virgin birth. This rather suggests that Joseph was not the father, but that God had selected Mary for this purpose. Mary comes across as the supposed ultimate model for women. Self effacing, obedient and serene. I’m sure that Philomena would have perceived her as a role-model.

Mary with Jesus

So, who was Mary ? She was a young Jewish woman living in the Roman Empire. In line with Jewish customs of the time it is believed that she was ‘betrothed’ to Joseph when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. This puts her age at around 14, or younger, rather as the later, 4th century Philomena was betrothed  to the Emperor at a similar age.

Mary was not from a wealthy background. In the Gospel of Luke, (Luke 2:24) there is an account of Mary and Joseph’s presentation of Jesus in the temple which records that they offered a sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” which according to Mosaic law was only allowed if the woman was unable to afford a lamb to sacrifice.

From what we can learn about her, Mary did not have much power in her society. Being young, female, Jewish and not wealthy, all these characteristics placed her fairly low in the social hierarchy of the time. 

Catholic tradition tells us that Mary was “immaculately conceived” in her own mother’s womb. Somehow, her mother as a virgin, made Mary free from original sin. This ensured that she would be an appropriate woman to one day bear the baby Jesus and bring him into the world.

So, as in my case and that of millions of other women raised in Catholicism, this goodness and chastity was the highest state we could aspire to.

These qualities could be seen as good traits that we women should try to emulate. But the problem lies in how far women are asked to go in order to keep up this image in their public persona. Are they being asked to betray their own individual needs and values in order to win other people’s approval. “Sugar and spice and all things nice” was (still is in some cases) the example to follow. As long as you’re neatly turned out and polite and charming that’s good enough.  As a result, we are taught that our external appearance and good manners are more important than any internal feelings. Keep quiet. Still, sadly, today there are many cultures which still control women in this way – worst examples like covering your head and face and child brides.

In the bible story of the Nativity, Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid,” before explaining to her that she is to give birth to a child named Jesus. Mary says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”  Conditioned to be meek and mild it seems. Everything that the angel Gabriel says comes across as an order, or at least a statement of fact: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31) and “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35). 

If you were 14 year old Mary, you’d probably feel there was no option but to obey this scary, intimidating being in front of her who claimed to be sent by an all-powerful God. Mary wasn’t given a choice. She was highly unlikely to stand up for her own needs in front of this intimidating being. She was willing, as still many are today, to ignore her own doubts and to win approval from others, in this case, God. 

Yet, after Gabriel’s assurance to “be not afraid,” Mary doesn’t act as if she was afraid. She does have enough courage to ask the question, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). At the end of their interaction, the fact that she felt the need to say “let it be done to me according to your will” suggests that she sensed that the angel was waiting for some sort of consent. When she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the angel’s visit, both women joyfully celebrated their pregnancies, and Mary describes how God “has done great things for me” in the prayer that is called her “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-50). I could admire Mary in one sense, that she demonstrated amazing courage in the face of such a terrifying experience. She decided – without the permission of her father or her betrothed – to bear a child into the world in a way that would necessarily cause disbelief, conflict and potential physical harm.

In becoming pregnant before she had gone to live with her betrothed, Mary was breaking a huge social norm in her society. She must have known that her pregnancy would upset the people around her. Until Joseph himself was visited by Gabriel himself, he would have thought that she had slept with another man, committing adultery. This was an offence that was punishable by stoning under Mosaic law, which is why Joseph had “decided to divorce her quietly” so as to not “expose her to shame.” (Matthew 1:19). No one she encountered, other than those who had also interacted with the angel, would have understood that this baby was, apparently, conceived by the Holy Spirit, so that Mary remained a virgin.

So, is Mary brave or merely compliant ? Interestingly, if I compare Mary’s situation with that of the young Philomena, the latter, apparently, did not have a vision of an angel or any other heavenly creature to make her decide to remain a virgin. As far as we know, she made that decision alone, even though it meant disobeying her parents, not to mention upsetting the Emperor of Rome ! In this, she demonstrated her free will to choose her own path. So with Mary, ordered to have a child who would be the son of God, does her compliance suggest that God does not actually care about women’s free will ? Is God merely the puppet master who controls our lives on a whim ? Are we just puppets ? If we go our own way will we be punished in the afterlife ? (if we agree that that exists).

Some might argue that God sent an angel to Mary with the intent of providing a being who would act as a gentle mediator to bring God’s message and to await Mary’s response. If that was the case, is God is a loving parent, who, although he knows what is best for us, he still allows us to make up our own minds ? Catholic theologians of different persuasions argue that Mary did, actually, have a fully free choice. Were both Mary and Philomena free to make their own choices ? You decide.

 Pope Benedict XVI wrote that the entire mission of Jesus is dependent on us having this freedom. Was Mary demonstrating her strength as many Catholic women might believe ?

In her book “Truly Our Sister : A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints”, Elizabeth Johnson writes:

This young peasant girl discerns the voice of God in her life, commissioning her to a momentous task. Exercising independent thought and action, she asks questions, takes counsel with her own soul. In a self-determining act of personal autonomy, she decides to go for it. This is her choice and it changes her life. A woman of Spirit, she embarks on the task of partnering God in the work of redemption.”

Mary is presented as a courageous woman by the Catholic faith. She chose to dive headlong into conflict in order to do what she believed was right. She broke social norms and didn’t let a desire to please other people stop her. She celebrated how God worked in the world, upsetting the status quo by being a threat to her elders and ‘betters. It is believed that when she participated in that work of disruption, from that time onward, “all ages will call [her] blessed” (Luke 1:48).

Personally, I don’t see this as a possibility, even if it really happened that way. If Catholic women are still regarded as lesser people than men, not being allowed to play a full role in the Church’s activities 2000 years later, how does this tie in with Gabriel’s manner of address to Mary ?

For me, Catholicism is about being a kind of “goodie, goodie gumdrops”. Sacrificing free will and the ability to manage women’s own lives in order to remain compliant with the teachings of the Church.  It’s basically about control. Taking your own path outside the confines of the path of righteousness makes women dangerous because they can’t be controlled. From an early age, the Church tries to ‘tame’ us. Many Catholic women in the 21st century see this as a force in their lives which is unfair and undeserved.

I think the Church must come to realise that women being independent as well as following the Catholic doctrine is not impossible. It will only prove possible though when women are shown as equals. Looking at the lives of Mary, Philomena and other well known Catholic women from the past shows the need for a rethink and transformation of perceptions and ideas by both male and female believers. If the Church wants to re-think and take a more constructive path with input from both ‘sides’ it needs to understand the essentials of feminism. Questions such as:

  • How and why the current religious, social and symbolic order of the Church has made the embracing of feminist philosophies difficult ?
  • How can the elders of the Church take on board the issues at stake ? Looking at both struggles and tensions hat currently exist.
  • How can bias in the Church’s teachings be addressed ?
  • How, ultimately, can agreement be reached ?

During the 1990s, the then Pope (later Saint) John Paul the second, did apologise to women for the wrongs they have experienced throughout the history of the Church.

“Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women... And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry.”  (Saint Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women, 1995)

Nevertheless, as I write nearly 30 years later, there is still a long way to go, although some issues have been resolved more recently.

Going back to virgin martyrs, in order to better understand their religious value, some historical context is important. The ‘age of the virgin martyrs’ lies between the apostolic era (33 -100 AD) and the time of the Church Fathers (from the late 1st to mid-8th centuries AD) , flourishing in particular during the 4th and 5th centuries, when Christianity was in the process of establishing itself as the state church of the Roman Empire. Knowing the social and cultural backdrop of the early Roman Empire in which such women lived helps us to appreciate exactly what the Church honours in the case of the virgin martyrs.

Roman law forbade a woman to remain unmarried. She was the property of a man, either of her own father or, later, of her husband. She had to marry. As property, she could also not own her own property or manage her money. Even a widow was not free to remain unmarried. She had to remarry !

Into that Roman world, the Church actually introduced radical ideas about a woman’s dignity. From the beginning, the Church insisted on a woman’s right to remain unmarried, and created some space for women to join early monasteries where they could live out what they saw as a mystical marriage to Christ.

“The early virgin martyrs were seen as heroes. They were women and girls who believed that they were daughters and brides of God. They didn’t accept that they were second-class citizens, only fit to be a man’s property,” ( Mary Pezzulo, a Catholic author who writes the “Steel Magnificat” blog on Patheos.)

The Christian virgin martyrs in the 1st century Roman world had what might be called the ‘revolutionary idea’ that they could belong to Christ as much as a man could, but in their own way. Like my namesake, Philomena, they stood up to the most powerful empire in the world, and suffered horribly because of it, including being martyred in the most gruesome ways.

Rich and powerful Roman noblemen, who were non-Christians at this time desired these virgin martyrs. They pursued them and offered them marriage, even as the Emperor  had done to Philomena. When the martyrs refused their proposals the men handed the Christian women over to the authorities to be imprisoned, tortured and killed.

Historians have suggested that we need to see these saints being martyrs first and virgins second. Since those early days in the Church’s history, the commitment to Christianity of these virgin martyrs, could be seen as both radical and courageous. Unfortunately, over the centuries, they have been frequently held up as examples for young girls especially, to hold on to their chastity and sexual purity ! The Church has, more recently changed its position in this respect, but, nevertheless, there’s still a gap to fill.


 St. Anastasia, (Died A.D. 304)

I chose to look at the life of St. Anastasia . She was a contemporary of St. Philomena. Little is known about her life. The story goes that after her mother died, Anastasia’s father planned to give her in marriage to a pagan Roman named Publius. However, Anastasia, who had been baptised as a baby. Her Christian mother wanted to preserve her virginity in this way.

During the persecution of Christians at that time, Anastasia visited and cared for imprisoned Christians around the Roman Empire. She was later arrested and killed by either being beheaded or being burned alive. She is now the patroness of martyrs, weavers, widows and those suffering from poisoning. Her feast day is Dec. 25th, believed to be the date Jesus was born.

In the Church, especially in its earlier days, virginity and purity were understood  to be great spiritual gifts. Both were praised as some of the highest ways a person could imitate Christ and devote themselves to serving him.


St. Lucy (A.D. 283-304)

Another contemporary of Philomena was St.Lucy. Lucy was born to rich and noble parents in Syracuse. At a young age, she consecrated her virginity to God and hoped to distribute her dowry to the poor. Concerned for her, Lucy’s mother arranged for her to be betrothed to a young man from a wealthy pagan family.

Legend has it that St. Agatha, who had been martyred around 50 years earlier, appeared to Lucy in a dream to tell her that her mother would be cured from a bleeding disorder. In thanksgiving, Lucy had her mother distribute a large portion of her riches amongst the poor.

Unfortunately, the news of this act angered Lucy’s pagan betrothed. He reported her to the Roman governor. Lucy was sentenced to death for refusing to burn a sacrifice to the Emperor’s image. She was killed by the sword, and is the patroness of the blind, related to a legend about the governor ordering her eyes to be gouged out ! Her feast day is Dec.13th.

Many female virgin martyrs have been canonised over time for dying to defend their chastity.

The modern Catholic Church beatified two 20th century women – now known as the Blesseds Veronica Antal of Romania and Anna Kolesarova of Slovakia. They were killed while fighting off men who tried to sexually assault them.

Properly understood and carefully presented, the ancient and more recently canonised virgin martyrs bear great value for evangelisation. The stories of all these women is told in a positive light – dying in the name of Christ was the ultimate sacrifice and proved that Jesus Christ was the centre of their lives.

If we look at the situations and fate of these virgin martyrs, it would seem that The Church wants its flock to believe that these women were saints mainly because they managed not to be raped !  Looked at in a modern context, particularly that of non-believers, martyrdom could be said to send the message that a girl or woman who survives a sexual assault would have been better off being killed for the sake of purity and the state of her soul ! This definitely doesn’t sit well with the modern feminist !

Nuns and priests are still celibate. According to the Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law, celibacy is a “special gift of God” which allows practitioners to follow more closely the example of Christ, who was chaste. (or was he ?)  Another reason is that when a priest enters into service to God, the Church becomes his highest calling. Aspiring nuns and monks are required to reject private property, marriage and biological family ties. Celibacy is implicit in the rejection of marriage and procreation and has always been central to the monastic ideal. In modern times, some celibates argue that they are not distracted by physical desire or family life. This allows them to focus more fully on the spiritual side of their existence.

The floor is open for discussion. Let me have your opinions.

Philomena  - March 2023.