Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, Christian martyrs and mothers
On March 7, the Church honors Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, early Christian martyrs and mothers. Perpetua was a convert to Christianity who was born to a noble pagan family. She was martyred along with her maid and friend, Felicity, in Carthage in 203 A.D.
The two women were arrested and imprisoned, along with three other Christians. Perpetua was 22-years-old, with a son a few months old; Felicity was pregnant at the time of the arrest. Their only crime was converting to Christianity.
The account of their martyrdom and courage, The Suffering of Perpetua and Felicity, is one of the earliest historical accounts of Christianity. It is one of the great treasures of martyr literature, an authentic document preserved for us in the actual words of the martyrs and their friends. Perpetua wrote a vivid account of what happened.
“While I was still with my companions, and my father in his affection for me was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and so weaken my faith, ‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vessel—water pot 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.’ Then my father, provoked by the word ‘Christian,’ threw himself on me as if he would pluck out my eyes, but he only shook me, and in fact was vanquished…. Then I thanked God for the relief of being, for a few days, parted from my father . . . and during those few days we were baptized. The Holy Spirit bade me after the holy rite to pray for nothing but bodily endurance.”
While she was imprisoned, Felicity gave birth to a girl, who was taken and raised by one of her sisters. Perpetua wrote regarding her, “She rejoiced in the health of the child, for now she was free to be martyred: from blood to blood, that is, from motherhood to single combat, for after the birth she would be washed by a second baptism, that is to say, in her own blood.
“The prisoners turned their last meal into an agape, a love feast, and spoke of the joy of their own sufferings thereby astonishing most witnesses, and converting some.
On the day of Games, Perpetua and Felicity went to the amphitheater “joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven,” as Perpetua sang a psalm of triumph. When the guards attempted to force the captives to wear robes consecrated to Roman gods, Perpetua challenged them: “We came to die out of our own free will so we wouldn’t lose our freedom to worship our God. We gave you our lives so that we wouldn’t have to worship your gods.
“The three male martyrs threatened the crowd, including the procurator who had condemned them, with the judgment of God, thereby enraging the crowd.
The men were attacked and killed by bears, leopards, and wild boars. A wild heifer was sent against the women. The heifer tossed Perpetua, who got up, straightened her hair, and helped Felicity regain her feet. Absorbed in ecstasy, Perpetua was unaware that she had been thrown, and did not believe it until Felicity showed her the marks on her body. Having survived the animals, the women were to be executed. They exchanged a final kiss of peace. A nervous gladiator tried to kill Perpetua, but failed to finish the job until she guided the knife to her throat.
Perpetua — Cattle, death of children, martyrs.
Felicity — Death of children; martyrs; sterility; to have male children; widows.
Saints Perpetua and Felicity, watch over all mothers and children who are separated from each other. Help all of us to follow your example of faith and courage. Amen.