Memorial: Liturgical Color: Red
Many centuries ago, in the desert lands of North Africa now populated by tens of millions of adherents of Islam, there was once a thriving Catholic Church. Dioceses, bishops, theologians, shrines, cemeteries, schools, monasteries, convents, and saints populated the towns hugging the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This vibrant Catholicism gave birth to, and was inspired by, the witness of numerous martyrs. Many of their names are known, among them today’s saints, Felicity and Perpetua.
Few documents in Church history equal the power of the first person and eye-witness account of the assassinations of these female martyrs. The reader can almost feel the sand of the arena below his feet, a warm breeze blowing on his cheeks, and the crowd pressing in all around, their roar filling his ears. Perpetua was married, a noblewoman, and a new mother. Her father begged her to renounce her Christian faith, to no avail. Felicity was a slave and pregnant when jailed. She gave birth a few days before her martyrdom. Her child was raised by Christian women in Carthage. St. Perpetua recorded the event herself and a narrator adds more details. When they were first thrown into the arena they were attacked by a rabid cow which seriously injured them. They were then removed from the arena until some gladiators were brought in. The executioners did their work quickly and the Church had its martyrs. Perpetua and Felicity were imprisoned together, suffered together, and died in each other’s arms in 203 A.D. in Carthage.
The narrative, incredibly, was faithfully preserved and has come down largely intact through the centuries. Apart from the New Testament writings themselves, only a few documents from the early Church precede this passion narrative. It is a template for imagining how a multitude of martyrs suffered in arenas throughout the Roman Empire. The passion of Perpetua and Felicity was so widely known and admired, in fact, that the Church in North Africa often read the account in its public liturgies. St. Augustine, a bishop in North Africa two hundred years later, had to remind his faithful that the narrative was not on a par with Scripture itself.
The fact that women and slaves, both mothers who loved their children, were willing to die rather than renounce their faith, is a testament to the revolutionary message of Jesus Christ. The Son of God gave us a true religion. But he has also given us a true anthropology. He has revealed to man his true origins, his high dignity, and his ultimate purpose. Jesus reveals man to himself. So when early Christians, or even present day Christians, understand that they are made in God’s image and likeness, and that His Son died for them as much as he died for anyone else, they stand a little taller. If a Christian is told he is a slave, garbage, property, old, a prisoner, or a foreigner, he shouldn’t flinch at the insult. Because under these denigrations is a deeper identity: “child of God,” “made in God’s image and likeness,” and “worthy of the blood of the Lamb.” These are the titles of a citizen of the kingdom of God, a kingdom whose shadow covers the earth and comforts all those who live within in it. Felicity and Perpetua clung to their identity as Christians in the face of imprisonment, ridicule, torture, and pain. The newness of the faith, and the dignity it imparted, fortified them to accept death rather than a return to rough paganism. May our faith be as fresh to us today.
Saints Felicity and Perpetua, your martyrdom was an act of bravery which moved the Christians of your age and continues to move us today. Give all who invoke your names similar courage, fortitude, and faith to overcome timidity in witnessing to Christ in difficult circumstances.