The Catholic Defender: The Saint Perpetua and Felicity story
Perpetua : young, beautiful, well-educated, a noblewoman of Carthage in North Africa, mother of an infant son and chronicler of the persecution of the Christians by Emperor Septimius Severus. wrote:
“When my father in his affection for me was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and thus weaken my faith, I said to him, ‘Do you see this vessel—water pot or whatever it may be? Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am—a Christian.’”
The Catholic Church rose out of the ashes of the major Roman persecutions that nearly lasted for three centuries. There were Ten major persecutions: The First Persecution, Under Nero, A.D. 67, The Second Persecution, Under Domitian, A.D. 81, The Third Persecution, Under Trajan, A.D. 108, The Fourth Persecution, Under Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, A.D. 162, The Fifth Persecution, Commencing with Severus, A.D. 192, The Sixth Persecution, Under Maximus, A.D. 235, The Seventh Persecution, Under Decius, A.D. 249, The Eighth Persecution, Under Valerian, A.D. 257, The Ninth Persecution Under Aurelian, A.D. 274, The Tenth Persecution, Under Diocletian, A.D. 303.
On March 7 the Catholic Church remembers Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, who suffered Martyrdom during the fifth persecution under Emperor Severus. This persecution greatly affected Africa where Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were from.
In the year 203, St. Perpetua was a woman raised with nobility. She was raised with great promise with one exception? Her Mother was a Catholic which was a dangerous way of life at the time because of the Roman Emperor's decree. It would not be long before St. Perpetua would be affected because of her families ties to the underground Church. Some of them, one of her Brothers especially, became a catechumen learning the faith from his sister.
St. Perpetua's father was a Pagan who loved his family but could not control them as their faith in Christ was too strong. At 22 years of age, you would think St. Perpetua, who had a small child, would have every reason to want to live, yet, her faith in Christ and the knowledge of everlasting life was even more important to her. It is believed that her husband was already a martyr, she was already a widow.
When the father challenged St. Perpetua's faith, pointing to a water jug, she asked her father, "See that pot lying there? Can you call it by any other name than what it is?" Her father answered, "Of course not." Perpetua responded, "Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am -- a Christian."
Losing this argument, her father went on the attack, he lost it, had St. Perpetua arrested and imprisoned. She was arrested along with four other teachers, two slaves, (Felicity and Revocatus) and Saturninus and Secundulus.
In her diary, Perpetua describes her period of captivity: “What a day of horror! Terrible heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all, I was tormented with anxiety for my baby…. Such anxieties I suffered for many days, but I obtained leave for my baby to remain in the prison with me, and being relieved of my trouble and anxiety for him, I at once recovered my health, and my prison became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.”
Their chief catechist, Saturus, was also captured and imprisoned. He had ensured baptism for St. Perpetua before their imprisonment. St. Perpetua was gifted by God for her ability to speak before others, receiving messages from Jesus and Our Lady who encouraged her during trials and persecutions.
Prison was horrible, it was overcrowded, the African heat was unbearable. Darkness and prison were closely aligned together. The Soldiers were brutal in their treatment of prisoners, especially women.
St. Perpetua endured the separation she felt as her child was taken from her and she was placed in this horrible situation. St. Felicity was eight months pregnant going through this hardship.
Sometimes when things are so bad, just a little glimmer of hope can go a long way, there were two deacons that were able to minister to these women of faith ensuring that they were given a place where they could see family members and St. Perpetua could see her baby.
Being with her child, as any mother can relate, she recalled, "my prison suddenly became a palace for me." Her father feeling remorse and regret made another appeal to his saintly daughter, he came throwing himself at her feet kissing her hands, but her only response was, "We lie not in our own power but in the power of God."
The Judge had compassion for the father also tried to change St. Perpetua's mind, but that was to no avail. In the end, the judge sentenced St. Perpetua to be thrown to wild beast in the arena.
St. Perpetua was given a great grace that gives all of us a glimpse of what is to come for all of us. Her Brother asked her, "Lady sister, you are now greatly honored, so greatly that you may well pray for a vision to show you whether suffering or release is in store for you." Perpetua responded telling her brother what will happen the next day.
St. Perpetua gave this vision, a golden ladder of the highest length, reached up to heaven. On the sides of the ladder were swords, lances, hooks and daggers so that if anyone did not climb looking up on Heaven, they would be severely injured. At the bottom of the ladder laid a large dragon to try to scare those journeying up away from Heaven.
Saturus was the first to begin the climb, once he reached the top, he called out, "Perpetua, I wait for you, but take care that the dragon does not bite you." To which she replied, "In the name of Jesus Christ, he will not hurt me," and the dragon put his down his head.
Perpetua traveled up the ladder and saw a beautiful vast garden with a tall man with white hair dressed like a shepherd and milking sheep. 'Thou art well come, my child," he said to Perpetua, giving her some of the curds from the milk. She ate and all those around her said, "Amen."
Perpetua woke from her dream with a sweet taste still in her mouth. At once, she told her brother what happened and together, they understood they must suffer.
St. Felicity was eight months pregnant and this was an issue for the authorities. It was against the law to execute a woman that is pregnant. To the authority, killing a child in the womb was shedding innocent blood. I find that information interesting as this is a Pro-Life stand? Felicity was worried she would not have the child before their date of execution as she wanted to go with her friends to Heaven.
Despite threats of persecution and death, Perpetua, Felicity–a slavewoman and expectant mother–and three companions, Revocatus, Secundulus and Saturninus, refused to renounce their Christian faith. For their unwillingness, all were sent to the public games in the amphitheater. There Perpetua and Felicity were beheaded, and the others killed by beasts.
Felicity went into labor just two days before her execution, knowing this, the guards made fun of her, insulting her by saying, "If you think you suffer now, how will you stand it when you face the wild beasts?" Felicity responded back to them calmly, "Now I'm the one who is suffering, but in the arena, another will be in me suffering for me because I will be suffering for him." She gave birth to a beautiful healthy girl who was adopted and raised by one of the Christian women of Carthage.
The Christians in prison began to have a positive impact on the guards, especially St. Perpetua. For a time this helped the faithful as the warden did allow prisoners to have visitors. The warden himself would convert to the Catholic faith through the example of these great Christian martyrs. Reminds me of the jailor who ran in scared to death to St. Paul's cell when the earthquake hit the land. The jailor's whole family were all baptized.
When the guards were afraid to clean the prisoners up before execution, Perpetua spoke up, "We're supposed to die in honor of Ceasar's birthday. Wouldn't it look better for you if we looked better?"
Subsequently, they were all allowed to clean themselves before their execution.
The day before the executions, the crowds awaiting the martyrdoms of these saints tried to make fun of them but the Christians turned it around on the Pagans reducing the laughing crowd to silence because of their saintly heroic demeanor. The Christians exhorted the Pagans to follow their example.
Facing death, many in the crowd witnessed great heroic faith. Perpetua and her leadership, kept everyone in high spirits as they met the eyes of everyone along the way. Witnesses told how St. Perpetua walked with "shining steps as the true wife of Christ, the darling of God."
When those at the arena tried to force Perpetua and the rest to dress in robes dedicated to their gods, Perpetua challenged her executioners. "We came to die out of our own free will so we wouldn't lose our freedom to worship our God. We gave you our lives so that we wouldn't have to worship your gods." She and the others were allowed to keep their clothes.
The men were attacked by bears, leopards, and wild boars. The women were stripped to face a rabid heifer. The two were thrown out and attacked, but the crowd cried out they had had enough. The women were removed and clothed again. Perpetua and Felicity were thrown back into the arena to face the gladiators.
Perpetua called out to her brother and other Christians, "Stand fast in the faith, and love one another. Do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you."
Perpetua and Felicity stood side by side and were killed by sword at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.
As they climbed up the ladder towards Heaven, the glimpse of Heaven became clearer and cleared to such a degree that despite their suffering, their eyes were centered on Christ.
Perpetua’s record of her trial and imprisonment ends the day before the games. “Of what was done in the games themselves, let him write who will.” The diary was finished by an eyewitness.
Sts. Perpetua and Felicity are the patron saints of mothers, expectant mothers, ranchers and butchers. Their feast day is celebrated on March 7.