March saints: Sts. Felicity and Perpetua
Though their names may not be as familiar to us today, the story of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity and their companions was so popular and inspiring in the early Church that it was often read aloud during Mass. And, unlike many early martyrs, whose lives often come to us at the hands of unknown authors or many years removed from the events they describe, this account was written by Perpetua herself. Consequently, it gives a vivid and poignant picture of courage and faith despite persecution and terrible suffering.
In Carthage, Africa, in the year 203, during the reign of Roman Emperor Severus, Perpetua, who was a young mother and likely a widow, was baptized a Christian even though she knew that her decision would likely cost her her life. Although her mother was also a Christian, Perpetua’s father was still a pagan, and it was he who exerted the most pressure on her to recant her faith. Frantic with worry for his 22- year-old daughter, he tried everything he could think of to change her mind, but to no avail. As he feared, Perpetua and her maid, Felicity, who was eight months pregnant, were soon arrested and thrown into prison.
The conditions there were horrific; the guards were abusive and, because of the overcrowding, the heat was stifling, and there was no light. Perpetua herself wrote that she had “never known such darkness.” Felicity too, suffered greatly.
A well-placed bribe by two deacons got the women moved to a better part of the prison where Perpetua was reunited with her infant son. But even here her father came, pleading in tears for her to change her mind. She was not to be swayed, however; she told him, “We lie not in our own power but in the power of God.”
Indeed, it was God who soon sent her the vision that confirmed her decision. In it, she climbed a long golden ladder that had a fierce dragon at the bottom and instruments of torture along the sides. Keeping her eyes fixed firmly on heaven, Perpetua ascended to the top, where she was met with a beautiful garden and a tall man who said, “You are well come, my child.” It was then that she knew she was walking the right path.
In the meantime, because the law forbade the execution of a pregnant woman, Felicity was very much afraid that her friends and fellow Christians would face martyrdom without her. To her relief, she gave birth to a daughter two days before the scheduled execution; while the child was adopted by a Christian woman, Felicity accompanied Perpetua to the arena to face the wild beasts.
From this point on, an eyewitness recorded the account of their martyrdom. After being attacked and severely wounded by a rabid heifer, the women were sent out again to face the gladiators, who killed them by the sword.
The patrons of mothers and expectant mothers, their feast day is March 7.
Sources for this article include:
Kirsch, Johann Peter. “Sts. Felicitas (sic) and Perpetua.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.
“Saint Felicity of Carthage.” CatholicSaints.Info. Aug. 11, 2018.
“Saint Perpetua.” CatholicSaints.Info. Aug. 12, 2018.
Schreck, Alan. “Catholic Church History from A to Z.” Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Publications, 2002.