Mothers and Martyrs • d. March 7, 203 • Memorial: March 7
When we use Eucharistic Prayer I at Mass, we ask God for the ability to emulate a litany of saints. Sure, we recognize the apostles’ names, but the others are less certain: Cosmas and Damian, Cyprian, Cornelius, Chrysogonus, Alexander, Marcellinus, and so on. Who were these people?
Two of them were Felicity and Perpetua, North African women martyred very early in the third century. While their story isn’t conventionally exciting, their quiet confidence and trust in Christ and their steadfastness in their faith can teach us much about living a Christian life today.
The Acta (or Acts) of Saint Perpetua tell us that she was a 22-year-old, well-born, well-educated mother of an infant who lived in the Roman province of Africa, in the city of Carthage, which today is near Tunisia’s capital. Saint Felicity was a pregnant slave who, along with Perpetua and four others, was rounded up in the persecutions of Emperor Septimius Severus (193–211). We know about these two remarkably brave women because Perpetua kept a diary of their imprisonment and trial. Hers is the oldest surviving writing by a Christian woman.
Today we have the impression that persecution under the Roman emperors was unremitting. In reality, though, it waxed and waned— sometimes it was terrible, sometimes not so bad, sometimes hardly evident at all. Life had been quiet for Carthage’s Christians for several years. Around 197, however, Severus decreed that no imperial citizen could convert to Judaism or Christianity. This affected only recent converts, which explains why Perpetua’s mother and brother, both longtime Christians, were not arrested.
Because she was still a catechumen, however, authorities eventually arrested Perpetua, separating her from her son, who had not yet been weaned. Some deacons bribed a jailer to allow Perpetua’s mother to bring her son to her, and she kept and nursed him for the remainder of her imprisonment. “Straightway,” Perpetua wrote, in words at which many mothers will smile, “I became well and was lightened of my labour and care for the child; and suddenly the prison was made a palace for me.”
The palace would be short lived, however. Perpetua had a vision of a dragon’s head, bronze ladders, and beautiful vistas. She interpreted this to mean that she and the others would soon receive martyrdom.
Her pagan father didn’t need a vision to understand this. He tried every means possible to get his little girl to apostatize—that is, to renounce the faith. He cried, he begged, he beseeched, he yelled, he manipulated. But Perpetua held her ground. The two obviously loved one another, and their discord must have been hard on the saint.
At the trial the procurator, Hilarianus, got right to the point: Apostatize, or die. The soldiers then let Perpetua’s father into the court, and in his arms he held her son. For the sake of your child, he admonished her, save your life. She was resolute, however. Her father became so distraught that bailiffs had to forcibly remove him. The other Christians likewise stood firm. All were found guilty and sentenced to die while fighting beasts at games held in honor of the birthday of Septimius Severus’s son, Prince Geta.
After the sentencing, Perpetua had another vision. It was similar to her first: Once again the dragon, now a serpent, tried to prevent Christians from climbing the heavenly ladder. Perpetua took this to mean that she would fight not beasts but Satan himself, and that she would emerge victorious.
Felicity was now eight months pregnant. While many may find this hard to appreciate, she had more concern about being allowed martyrdom with her companions than about her impending delivery. Roman law prohibited the execution of a pregnant woman. Two days before the scheduled execution, Felicity gave birth to a daughter, whom a Christian woman adopted. Now Felicity was free to receive the martyr’s crown along with the rest.
On the day of the games, the prisoners were scourged per the crowd’s wishes. Then a leopard, boar, and bear were loosed on the men, and a wild bull on the women. When the beasts had savaged them, the saints gave each other the kiss of peace, and all were put to the sword.
Last to die was Perpetua. Her Acta state that her swordsman was new to the job. When he thrust his sword into her, he pierced her bones rather than her flesh. Seeing the bloodied woman screaming in pain but not felled by his thrust, he became unnerved and began impotently flailing his sword. Recalling her vision, this incredible woman then grabbed his arm and put the weapon to her own neck. Her Acta say this is the only way she would have died that day, such was her strength.
Why Sts. Perpetua and Felicity deserve our attention and devotion
In Scripture, Jesus tells us we must love God even more than we love our parents (see Matthew 10:37). Sometimes when we read things like this, they seem abstract. It’s hard to picture what this would look like in practical terms. Well, Perpetua and Felicity give us very good examples.
Both women had every reason in the world to live except one: Their doing so would have meant looking back and denying Christ. No reason is worth that.