Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Martyrs
Late Second Century–203
March 7—Memorial (Optional Memorial if Lenten Weekday)
Liturgical Color: Red (Purple if Lenten Weekday)
Patron Saints of expectant mothers, widows, and butchers
Young mothers bleed to death in the arena as pagan eyes drink in the spectacle
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 filled 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 can match the raw power of the first person, eye-witness account of the assassination of Perpetua and Felicity. It is a gripping narrative filled with breathtaking dramatic detail. The reader can almost feel the hot sand of the arena warming his feet, a gentle sea breeze caressing his cheeks, and the sweaty crowd pressing against him, their roar for bloodlust echoing through the dry air.
Vivia Perpetua, twenty-two years old, was married, a noblewoman, and a new mother whose baby was still nursing. Her pagan father begged his favorite daughter to renounce her Christian faith, but to no avail. Felicity was a slave and pregnant when jailed. She gave birth a few days before her martyrdom. Her child would be raised by Christian women in Carthage. Perpetua, in her own hand, recorded the events leading up to her martyrdom, while an eye-witness to her death completed the text later. When they were first thrown into the arena, Perpetua and Felicity were attacked by a rabid heifer, which was chosen because it shared the same sex as its victims. The young women were grievously injured by the mad cow and then momentarily removed from the arena until gladiators were brought in to conclude the day’s spectacle. The executioners carried out their duties quickly, though Perpetua had to guide the gladiator’s sword to her throat after he first painfully struck a bone instead of a vein. As the narration states, “Perhaps such a woman…could not die unless she herself had willed it.” Perpetua and Felicity were imprisoned together, suffered together, and died together in 203 A.D. in Carthage, North Africa, along with other noble martyrs whose names are preserved in the same account.
The vivid description of their deaths was so moving that it was faithfully preserved down through the centuries and has come to us largely intact. Apart from the New Testament writings themselves, only a few documents from the early Church pre-date the passion narrative of Perpetua and Felicity. It invites tantalizing reflection on how many similar first hand testimonies of famous martyrdoms from the early Church have been lost! What could have been known about the final moments of Saints Paul, Cecilia, Irenaeus, and so many apostles and popes! The accounts of Perpetua, Felicity, and Polycarp must fire our imagination for all the rest. The Church in North Africa so often read the account of Perpetua and Felicity in its public liturgies that Saint Augustine, a North African bishop living two hundred years after their martyrdoms, 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 also gave 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 garbage, property, a slave, old, a prisoner, or a foreigner, he shouldn’t flinch at the insult, because under such 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, whose shadow covers the earth and comforts all those who live in its shade. 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.