(Died March 7, 202)
Of the several authentic accounts of early Christian martyrdom that have been preserved, none is so detailed as that of Saints Perpetua and Felicity of Carthage, and four Christian men. They died under the decree of the Emperor Septimius Severus. Severus was trying to stamp out Christianity by preventing conversion. Here the two women and three men arrested were catechumens, i.e., people under instruction for Christian baptism. The fourth man was Saturus, the priest who had been instructing them. Part of the account of their imprisonment was written by Perpetua herself; a second part by Saturus; and some eyewitness wrote the beginning and the conclusion.
Vibia Perpetua was a noblewoman aged 22, and mother of a small infant. Felicity was a slave, pregnant and close to term. The three male catechumens were Saturninus and Secundulus and the slave Revocatus. Saturus, though not a catechumen, joined them rather than be separated from them. Thus he had a chance to baptize them.
On being arrested, the accused were first kept under house confinement. Perpetua’s old, pagan father kept persuading her to offer the required sacrifice. He used every ploy he could think of to break her will. But she stood firm. Pointing out an earthenware vessel nearby, she asked him, “Can that be called by any other name than what it is?” “No,” he answered. “So also,” she said, “I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.” Fortunately, all the catechumens had the opportunity to receive baptism during this first stage of imprisonment, most likely from Father Saturus.
Next the captives were conveyed to a regular prison. It was pitch dark within and the guards stationed there mistreated them. Perpetua’s main concern, however, was that she had been separated from her baby, who was still at breast. Finally they brought her the child. After that, as far as she was concerned, the hideous prison almost became heaven.
Perpetua was also heartened by several encouraging dreams or visions. In one she saw herself mounting a difficult ladder into heaven but being warmly welcomed there. In another, she beheld her little brother, who had died at seven from an ugly facial gangrene. In the vision, however, his face bore only a scar to recall the repulsive cause of his death.
As the day of execution approached, Felicity began to fear that her pregnancy would deprive her of the desired martyrdom. Roman law, with a strange mercy, forbade the execution of women with child. All the prisoners now joined in prayer for the prompt delivery of her child. The prayer was answered in due time. A soldier mocked the travail of the slave girl and asked how she could hope to suffer in the arena. She responded, “I suffer by myself now, but then another will suffer with me.” A faithful Christian promised to adopt the baby girl. The admirable behavior of the prisoners meanwhile resulted in the conversion of Pudens, their jailer. It was, as Shakespeare says, “A good deed in a naughty world.”
When the martyrs-to-be were finally conducted into the arena (one, Secundulus, had already died in prison), the men of the group cried out a prophetic warning to the bystanders for their act of injustice. Perpetua meanwhile sang a song of triumph. Because they maintained such good cheer, orders were given for the gladiators to lash them as they entered.
The wild animals sent in to play with the Christian group chose to remain unpredictable. The wild boar ignored Saturus and turned on its keeper, whom he mortally wounded. Perpetua and Felicitas were wounded by a mad heifer but not killed. Finally the gladiators were commanded to behead those not already dead. The martyrs then gave each other the sign of peace. The nervous gladiator assigned to dispatch Perpetua failed to kill her with the first blow. In the second she herself guided his hand.
News of this heroic witness spread rapidly through East and West Christendom. A basilica was raised over their tomb at Carthage. In Rome the names of the two valiant mothers, one free, one slave, were enshrined in the First Eucharistic Prayer like two flowers.
As the poet, Alfred Barrett, put it: “Perpetua, Felicitas/Pressed in the Canon of the Mass.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara