Little is known of the life of Saint Petronilla. From an inscription on her sarcophagus “Aureliae Petronillae Filiae Dulcissimae” or “Aurélia Pétronilla very dear daughter”, historians affirm that she would be a member of the Flavian family and the descendant of Titus Flavius Petro, the grandfather of Emperor Vespasian. The Christian tradition considers her as the spiritual daughter of Saint Peter who would have evangelized and baptized her. Preferring to die rather than marry, she would have prayed to God to ask her to die. She is considered a virgin and a martyr. She was buried in the Catacombs of Domitilla, located in Via Ardeatina.
Saint Petronilla, first patroness of France
In 757, the King of France Pepin the Short, wishing to place himself under the patronage of Saint Peter, asked Pope Paul I to transfer the body of Saint Petronilla to Saint Peter’s in Rome in thanks for the help he had given. to Pope Stephen II, threatened by the Lombards. The pope acceded to the king’s request and the relics of Saint Petronilla were transferred to a chapel of Saint Peter’s in Rome which took his name. Pepin the Short wishes that prayers be said there for the Frankish nation. He thus becomes “Son of the Church” and Saint Petronilla, patroness of the Franks”; which will earn France, by analogy, the title of “Elder Daughter of the Church”.
If the first chapel disappeared during the construction of the current basilica, a new chapel continued to be dedicated to Saint Petronilla and it still houses her body. Since the 8th century, this chapel has been considered a French chapel and, each year, a mass is said there on May 31 for France.
The first patron saints of France
Alongside Saint Petronilla, three other saints of the 6th century were for a long time the patronesses of France. Sainte Geneviève was the first “patron saint of Gaul” under the Merovingians and when the Carolingians came to power, she was dethroned by Pétronille. Then it is again under the Valois and this, until the revolution. Saint Radegonde, wife of Clotaire and founder of the monastery of Sainte-Croix de Poitiers, was a secondary patron saint of France, she is today the patron saint of Poitiers. Sainte Clotilde, wife of Clovis whom she converted, was also one of the secondary patron saints of France.
For a century, France has been placed under the patronage of the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc and Thérèse of Lisieux. On March 2, 1922, Pope Pius XI proclaimed in his Apostolic Letter Galliam, Ecclesiae filiam primogenitam, Our Lady of the Assumption, principal patroness of France. In this Letter, he recalls that “according to an old adage, that ‘the kingdom of France’ was called the ‘kingdom of Mary’, and rightly so. For, from the first centuries of the Church down to our time, Irenaeus and Eucher of Lyons, Hilaire of Poitiers, Anselme, who went to England from France as archbishop, Bernard of Clairvaux, François de Sales, and a number of others holy doctors, celebrated Mary and helped to promote and amplify throughout France the cult of the Virgin Mother of God. »
As for Joan of Arc, canonized in 1920, she became secondary patroness of France. “We declare with the greatest joy and establish the Maid of Orleans, admired and venerated especially by all the Catholics of France, as the heroine of the country, Saint Joan of Arc, virgin, secondary patroness of France, chosen by the full popular vote. »
In 1944, Pius XII declared Thérèse of Lisieux, canonized in 1925, secondary patroness of France, equal to Joan of Arc because of the broad popular devotion that had developed around her person. She is also a doctor of the Church and patroness of the missions.