The following story appeared in the February 24 Idaho Catholic Register.
Most saints’ lives of the early centuries are hidden in legends. However, St. Perpetua, who was martyred in 203 A.D., wrote about her experiences in prison. Two others – a fellow martyr and an eyewitness to the execution – contributed to her writing, creating a little book called, “The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicity and their Companions.”
Perpetua’s book became so important to the early Christians that it was included in their liturgical readings. Through the centuries, the book has been valued by religious and secular historians as a unique glimpse into Ancient Rome and the Church.
Vibia Perpetua, which is the full name she gives herself at the beginning of her journal, does not provide a lot of details of her early life, but historians in general agree that she was born in 181 A.D. in Carthage (modern day Tunisia). Her parents were wealthy nobles. Her indulgent father made sure she received an excellent education, which was rare in that time for women.
The persecution of Christians was sporadic during Perpetua’s life. Her mother became a Christian, but her father remained a pagan. Persecutions intensified during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211).
After Perpetua had married a nobleman and had her first child, she secretly attended catechesis to prepare for baptism. She never mentions her husband, only that she was married and had a nursing baby at the time of her arrest in 203. (Some historians think she was widowed; others think her husband abandoned her when she refused to recant her faith.)
The reasons for her arrest and the four catechumens with her are not given, only that they were arrested for their faith. It is assumed that they were arrested during a meeting. Of her four companions, Felicity and Revocatus were slaves or servants. Saturninus and Secundulus were freemen. (In tradition, Felicity is Perpetua’s slave, but Perpetua never explicitly says that in her writing.)
Before being taken to prison, Perpetua was baptized. Although she found prison terrifying, she said her greatest fears were for her infant son. Two deacons, Tertius and Pomponius, bribed the soldiers so that she and her friends would be sent to a better section of the prison that allowed them to see family. She received permission to keep her baby with her. She was so relieved, she said that the prison “suddenly became a palace.”
Hilarianus, the proconsul (Roman governor) of Carthage, chose an easy path for Christians to recant their faith. He required that they only had to burn incense before an image of the Emperor in the presence of a magistrate. Hilarianus pleaded with Perpetua to recant her faith out of pity for her father and infant son. She refused. Hilarianus sentenced her to death, and her father left with her son.
In her misery, she suddenly thought of her brother Dinocrates, who had died at the age of 7 from gangrene. She prayed for him and had a vision of him in a dark place, where he was filthy and parched. She began praying for him every day, until she had a vision of him clean, welldressed, and playing with joy. She knew his soul had entered heaven. (This story of her visions of her brother is historical evidence that the ancient Church prayed for the dead.)
Felicity was eight months pregnant at the time of their imprisonment. Because it was illegal to kill a pregnant woman because of the innocence of her unborn baby, she could not be martyred until after she gave birth. She feared having to go to her death without her friends. Knowing that she could not escape death, her friends also worried that they would have to face martyrdom without her. They prayed together for God’s mercy and for her to deliver her baby. She then went into labor and gave birth to a daughter, whom she gave to her sister to raise.
Having pity on Felicity and her companions, the prison guard allowed them to have visitors on the night before they were to be killed by wild animals in an arena. Her father came again and tried to dissuade her, but she would not recant. They held an agape (love feast), as best as they could, which was a type of meal held before (sometimes after) the Eucharist in the first through fourth centuries. They sang psalms and quoted Scripture to encourage each other.
While Felicity slept, she had a dream that her true battle was with Satan, and not with the beasts. She saw that the only way to defeat Satan was to fight him as a warrior without mercy until she won.
Because cows were symbols of fertility, the authorities decided to use a rabid cow to trample Perpetua and Felicity as a way of mocking their womanhood. At first they were thrown naked into the arena, but the horrified crowd, seeing their youth and that Felicity had just given birth, insisted the soldiers clothe them.
When Perpetua was tossed by the cow, her tunic tore. Although she was thrown with such force that she became dazed, she still adjusted her tunic to keep her modesty. She also insisted that they bring her a pin so that she could fix her disheveled hair, which the authorities granted. It is noted in commentaries that these were not considered acts of vanity, but instead were motivated by her desire to keep her dignity and to honor her coming death for Christ.
Because they had survived the cow, a soldier was sent to kill them by the sword. Perpetua was stabbed near the ribs, but the soldier hit bone, which made her scream in pain. The soldier then became too afraid to kill her. So Perpetua reached and took the point of his sword to her neck. He executed her and then killed Felicity. Perpetua and Felicity were immediately venerated as saints.
Saints Perpetua and Felicity are patron saints of mothers, ranchers and butchers.
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