Saints Felicity and Perpetua
Feast Day: March 7th
Born: Around 181 (Perpetua)
Died: March 7, 203 at Carthage, in the Roman province of Africa
Patronage: mothers, expectant mothers, ranchers, butchers, Carthage
If you’ve ever read about the early martyrs, you know that the first few centuries of the Church were decidedly wild times, and to be a follower of Jesus was a rather dangerous proposition. Many of the stories sound like something straight out of The Hunger Games: an unjust political system forcing innocent people to participate in “games,” subjecting them to torture and humiliation, and finally executing them publicly or letting them be torn to pieces by wild animals – all to the delight of a viewing audience, no less! But what we find most intriguing is the human drama, the tremendous courage and selflessness shown by these individuals in the face of great danger. Indeed, there are all the makings of a Hollywood movie, except these dramatic and gruesome tales of the early Christians are true!
One of the most moving accounts is that of Perpetua and Felicity, two young women who died as martyrs in Carthage (modern day Tunis) during the 3rd century. If their names seem familiar, perhaps it’s because they are mentioned in one of the Eucharistic Prayers used during Mass.1 Most of what we know about them comes from Perpetua’s first-hand account, which has survived to this day and records in vivid detail the trial and imprisonment that she and her companions faced.
Perpetua was a young woman from a well-known and upstanding family. She was married and had a young child. Her mother was a Christian, but her father was a pagan. Even though the environment in the Roman provinces was especially hostile and another wave of persecutions against Christians had begun, Perpetua was determined to become a Christian. When she was arrested along with her slave, Felicity, and three other slaves, Perpetua was only 22 years old.
Aware of the grave danger that she and her companions faced, Perpetua’s father tried to convince her to deny her Christian faith. In her diary, Perpetua relates part of their conversation: “When my father in his affection for me was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and thus weaken my faith, I said to him, ‘Do you see this vessel—waterpot or whatever it may be? Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am—a Christian.’”2
What’s so incredible about this incident is that Perpetua actually wasn’t yet a Christian. She was later baptized, but at this point, was only considered a catechumen. Nevertheless, she showed extraordinary strength and conviction, one born of a deep faith.
Captivated by God
What this conversation reveals is a heart captivated by God. Perpetua was determined to embrace this faith she had discovered and couldn’t be dissuaded. You see, at this time, a man by the name of Septimius Severus had come to power. He was known to be particularly cruel and had forbidden citizens throughout the Empire to convert to Judaism or Christianity. There were other Christians living in the area – Perpetua’s own mother was one. Surely, Perpetua was aware of this unjust decree. We may ask, “Why didn’t she wait until it was safe, when perhaps she – and her young child – wouldn’t have to suffer for her beliefs?” The only explanation is that once she found the truth, there was no denying it.
In her diary, Perpetua describes her period of captivity: “What a day of horror! Terrible heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all, I was tormented with anxiety for my baby…. Such anxieties I suffered for many days, but I obtained leave for my baby to remain in the prison with me, and being relieved of my trouble and anxiety for him, I at once recovered my health, and my prison became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.”3 Even amidst the terrors and hardships of prison, she thought only of others – most especially her nursing child – and never questioned whether her newfound faith was worth it or not.
Eyes on Eternity
Blessed with the gift of insight, Perpetua was given a vision of heaven and of the evil that she and the other catechumens would have to face:
“I saw a ladder of tremendous height made of bronze, reaching all the way to the heavens, but it was so narrow that only one person could climb up at a time. To the sides of the ladder were attached all sorts of metal weapons: there were swords, spears, hooks, daggers, and spikes; so that if anyone tried to climb up carelessly or without paying attention, he would be mangled and his flesh would adhere to the weapons.
At the foot of the ladder lay a dragon of enormous size, and it would attack those who tried to climb up and try to terrify them from doing so. And Saturus was the first to go up, he who was later to give himself up of his own accord. He had been the builder of our strength, although he was not present when we were arrested. And he arrived at the top of the staircase and he looked back and said to me: ‘Perpetua, I am waiting for you. But take care; do not let the dragon bite you.’
‘He will not harm me,’ I said, ‘in the name of Christ Jesus.’
Slowly, as though he were afraid of me, the dragon stuck his head out from underneath the ladder. Then, using it as my first step, I trod on his head and went up.
Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb; tall he was, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child.’
He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’ At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told this to my brother, and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we would no longer have any hope in this life.”4
The End of the Story is Just the Beginning
This vision assured Perpetua of their impending martyrdom. Sure enough, Perpetua, Felicity, and the other catechumens were sent to the public arena. Felicity, soon to be a mother herself, was unsure of her fate as it was against the law to execute a pregnant woman. They all prayed fervently that if this were to be their fate, they would die together. A few days before the games commenced, Felicity gave birth to a baby girl. Perpetua’s account ends the day before the games, but an eyewitness finishes it by describing the courageous deaths of the young martyrs:
“The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze. With them also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second baptism.”5
The men faced a boar, a bear, and a leopard, while a wild heifer was set loose upon the women. Still alive but gravely injured, the catechumens gave each other the kiss of peace. In the end, they all had their throats slit, Perpetua herself guiding a young gladiator’s hand to her neck. Though so young, she was blessed with great wisdom. Perpetua and her companions discovered that it’s not enough to be concerned with temporal happiness; we must focus on eternal happiness. Like the apostle Paul, they could speak truthfully: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”6
When we hear these stories of the early martyrs, it’s difficult for us to imagine the situations they faced. To deny their faith would have saved their lives, but their love for God was paramount. It has long been said: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”7 We can never underestimate the value of their witness. They continue to teach, inspire, and encourage us to stand firm in our faith, and to persevere to the end. Heaven is so worth it!
– Kelley Holy
1 Felicity and Perpetua are considered pre-congregation saints, likely canonized as a result of popular devotion.
2 “Sts. Perpetua and Felicity;” available from http://www.americancatholic.org/Features/Saints/saint.aspx?id=1315; Internet; accessed 24 February 2014.
3 “The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas” From Jesus to Christ; available from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/perpetua.html; Internet; accessed 20 February 2014.
6 Philippians 1:21
7 A quote attributed to Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers and also, incidentally, from Carthage.