St. Philomena

“If you stay faithful to Christ, you will lose everything”. If I’m honest with myself, this is the fear that echoes in my mind whenever I struggle with choosing my faith first. The Christians being persecuted in Iraq and Syria have to make this choice daily, and for them the choice is losing their lives. Though my struggles are much less than theirs I think of the time when I first decided to become Catholic, knowing that I might lose friendships and suffer loneliness. This fear added a heavy burden to my conversion. As I began discerning my vocation, I realized that these are not one-time sacrifices, and that God calls us to continually put Him first in our hearts. At my worst times, I was overcome with fear of a possible vocation being opposed and the pain of giving up my many attachments.

So often, the enemy comes in and whispers lies and exaggerations – “see, you will be miserable if you continue… you will be alone and you will never be happy…”. A compromise is suggested – maybe if I don’t do “so much”, I would lose less.. A doubt arises in the mind – where is God? Why is He letting me go through this? We turn to God and sometimes we feel He is silent, and we are left with only an image of the Cross. “..If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for My sake, shall find it” (Matthew 16:24, 25, D-R).

God’s thinking is not our thinking, and with Christ, loss is gain. The more we are purified in the fire of tribulation, the more our souls will be like Him, and even if we give up the whole world for Him, He is yet more generous. The life of St Philomena demonstrates this reality in an amazing way. She loved Christ to the point of heroism, and she has been a great encouragement to me to seek greater purity and God’s will despite any opposition.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like for this Greek princess, the only daughter of Christian parents. Her sacrifice was her life, and what is to the world a successful marriage – a marriage to an Emperor. In her thirteenth year, she was pressured to accept the marriage proposal from Diocletian. Yet for St Philomena, this offer was impossible to accept, as she had vowed her virginity to Christ. I sometimes wonder what it’s like to make such a choice… either you become a great Empress, avoid an unjust war with your country, ensure the prosperity of your family, and live surrounded by comforts and riches… or, you choose Christ, and face the wrath of the Emperor, the disappointment of your family, and even death. I can’t imagine the difficulty of her situation as her parents cried for her to take pity on her family, her country, and her kingdom.

Are we ready to choose Christ above all? St Philomena chose her Crucified Spouse over an earthly spouse. For someone discerning a vocation, they have to face a similar sacrifice, and risk the possible misunderstanding of others. I have often struggled with this fear in my own journey of discernment and became afraid of hurting those I love. Trust became the only remedy. In relationships also, – Jesus needs to be at the center. As young women, we are often pressured to give in to worldly standards and face ridicule for the degree of purity asked for by Christ. Whether it’s from a boyfriend, friends, or even the media, this pressure often tries to get us to lessen our purity by degrees – a little here, a little there… and then our hearts forget the love of Christ and become distracted and confused. St Philomena rejected the Emperor’s invitation right from the start, and said, – no, I have another Lover. For her, virginity was worth more than the gold and jewels of an Empress, because it is the priceless adornment of the soul. Our purity is more valuable than the world’s promises or even requests from those we love, as painful as the sacrifice may be. Through joyful purity we imitate Jesus, and show Him to be our greatest love.

As nothing moved St Philomena’s resolution, the Emperor moved to threats and then ordered her to be thrown into the dungeon. As she was tortured, she received strength from God by recommending herself continually to Jesus and to the Blessed Mother, who appeared to her and gave her courage. St Philomena underwent more tortures at the age of 13 than I could imagine enduring. She was scourged, tied to an anchor and thrown into the Tiber, and pierced with arrows. Each time, she was rescued by Angels and miraculously healed, and many were converted through her example. In the end, the Emperor ordered to have her beheaded.

St Philomena’s story was unknown when her relics were discovered in 1802. We know her story because it was miraculously revealed to three people, unknown to each other. We can read it in her words. After her relics were discovered, she became known as the “Wonder Worker” because of the amount of miracles and healings that occurred with her intercession. Her story does not end, but continues with the words: “My soul, glorious and triumphant, ascended into heaven, there to receive the crown of virginity which I had merited by so many victories.” Then, she gives the date when this happened – August 10th.

Most of us are not faced with the choice to give our lives for Christ. Some are called to vow chastity to Him, and all are called to purity and holiness. Yet St Philomena’s story shows us that God gives us strength to overcome all things for Him. There is nothing to fear in following Christ, not because we won’t have to suffer or sacrifice, but because God will give us what we need. Bearing the pain with love and resolution can add a certain joy, and through the cross we become more like our King. The same God who gave such courage to St Philomena, is with us now and always, and crosses carried with love for Him, become less difficult.