Monday, March 7, 2011

"Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, ora pro nobis."

Altar of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, Washington, D.C.
Today's feast day on the Church calendar honors Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, two early Christian martyrs who were executed by Roman authorities on March 7, 203. This day is very special, though, because it offers us a unique opportunity to learn about these witnesses for the Faith from one of the witnesses herself: Perpetua's diary account of her ordeal and imprisonment, written in her own hand, was preserved and can still be read today. This is the earliest-known surviving text written by a Christian woman.

A moving account

Most historians believe that Perpetua's diary is historical. But by any account, the story is a moving one. Vivia Perpetua (her full name) was a Roman noblewoman, 22 years old and a new mother, still nursing her infant son. She was a catechumen - a person in the process of joining the Church, but who had not yet been baptized. Felicity was Perpetua's slave and fellow-catechumen. She was pregnant. They lived in Roman North Africa near the Roman city of Carthage.

In the year 202, Emperor Septimius Severus decreed that all Roman subjects were explicitly forbidden from becoming Christians. A few months later, in response to this decree, Carthage officials arrested the class of catechumens from the local church. The group included Perpetua and Felicity as well as three others: Revotacus, another slave; and Saturninus and Secundulus, both freedmen. The group's catechist (instructor in the Faith), a man named Saturus, voluntarily turned himself in to authorities and joined the group as well. While awaiting imprisonment, Saturus had the five catechumens baptized.

Perpetua's heart-wrenching firsthand account describes the group's imprisonment where deacons from the local church had to bribe guards to gain visitation rights for the six. Perpetua writes of the anxiety she felt for her infant son and of her joy when her mother was able to bring him to the prison so that he could stay with her and nurse until the group was to be executed. During their appearance before the local Roman prefect, Perpetua's father, a pagan, repeatedly pleaded with his daughter to recant her Christian faith and save her life, but she steadfastly refused. Perpetua responded to her father's pleas: "I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am--a Christian." Finally, the group was sentenced to be thrown to wild beasts in the local amphitheater.

During their imprisonment, one of the catechumens, Secundulus, died. Felicity, who was 8 months pregnant, confided in Perpetua that she worried that she might not be allowed to suffer martydom with the rest of the group since Roman law prohibited the execution of an expectant mother. But, Perpetua recounts, Felicity was overjoyed when she gave birth prematurely to a daughter just two days before their execution date. The daughter was adopted by a local Christian family and Felicity was able to join the group in the amphitheater to face the wild beasts. 

Site of martyrdom as it appears today near Tunis, Tunisia.
As Perpetua's diary abruptly ends, an eyewitness adds an account of the group's martyrdom. The five Christians were led into the arena and scourged before the crowd. Next, wild animals were released on the group - a boar, a bear and a leopard for the men, and a wild cow for the women. The animals injured the Christians but did not kill them. So, a Roman swordsman was dispatched to deliver the final coup de grace to each Christian. The last line of the martyrdom account reads: "But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced [by the swordsman] between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman's hand wandered still (for he was a novice), she herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it."

Powerful prayer partners

The account of Perpetua and Felicity's martyrdom immediately spread from Carthage in North Africa throughout the Church. They became immensely popular as intercessors for Christians in North Africa to Spain, from Gaul to Asia and beyond. Their names were even added to the Roman Canon and remain two of only seven female saints mentioned by name in that Eucharistic prayer. Even still, over 1,800 years later, the account of their passion and martyrdom for the Faith can move the reader and stir emotions. You can read the full account here.

The strength and perseverance of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity force us to examine the depth of our own faith. In light of their willingness to sacrifice, some of our own trials and tribulations may be brought back into perspective and we can be jolted "back down to earth" when reading such a human account of devotion to God. As we move toward the start of Lent, we should ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith and resolve, in the model of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. And we should ask these great martyrs and powerful intercessors to pray for us.