Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, Martyrs

Perpetua and Felicitas (or Felicity) were two 3rd century Christian martyrs. Perpetua was a 22-year old mother with a son a few months old. Felicitas, her slave, was pregnant with child. They were from Carthage, a Roman Province in North Africa. It was originally a Phoenician city and the famous Hannibal, who brought elephants across the Alps to attack Rome, came from there. Few saints were more greatly honoured in the early Church. Their story is told in The Passion of St Perpetua, St Felicitas, and their Companions, regarded as one of the great treasures of martyr literature, a document which is said to preserve the actual words of the martyrs and their friends.

Saint Perpetua’s account is apparently historical, and is the earliest surviving text written by a Christian woman. With the lives of so many early martyrs shrouded in legend, it is fortuitous to have the record from the hand of Perpetua herself, her teacher Saturus, and others who knew them. Read in North African churches for the next several centuries, it was treated as almost equivalent to scripture and was read during liturgies.

Perpetua and Felicitas were arrested and imprisoned, along with three other Christians in 203 AD. Their crime was defying the Emperor Septimus Severus (193-211), himself of Phoenician origin. He had been a Roman general whose bold military exploits led him to be proclaimed emperor by the army after the death of the immoral Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius. By Severus’ decree, all imperial subjects were forbidden under severe penalties to become Christians or Jews, although only recent converts were affected.

While the five (along with their instructor in faith) were being held awaiting execution, Perpetua’s father urged his favourite child to save her life and the life of her baby by renouncing her faith. She answered:

Father, do you see this vessel – waterpot or whatever it may be?…Can it be called by any other name than what it is?

He replied, “No” – and she said:

So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.

At a trial shortly afterwards, Perpetua refused to offer a sacrifice for the prosperity of the emperors. When the court asked “Are you a Christian?” she answered, “Yes, I am,” thereby condemning herself to death.

Felicitas, meanwhile, had been afraid she would not suffer with the rest, because Roman law forbade the execution of pregnant women (on the basis that the unborn child was innocent of any crime). However, in answer to her prayers, her child was born while she was in prison and promptly adopted by a Christian couple. Perpetua had managed to convert their jailer to Christianity, and so the captives were treated well in their final days.

The prisoners turned their last meal into an agape, a love-meal and spoke of the joy of their own sufferings thus astonishing most witnesses, and even converting some of them. When the day of the games arrived, Perpetua and Felicitas went to the amphitheatre “joyfully as though they were on their way to heaven”, as Perpetua sang a psalm of triumph. The guards attempted to force the captives to wear robes consecrated to Roman gods, but Perpetua resisted so fiercely that they were allowed to wear their own clothes.

A wild heifer was sent against the women. The heifer tossed Perpetua, who got up, straightened her hair, and helped Felicitas regain her feet. Absorbed in ecstasy, Perpetua was unaware that she had been thrown, and did not believe it until Felicitas showed her the marks on her body. Having survived the animals, the women were to be executed. They exchanged a final kiss of peace. A nervous gladiator tried to kill Perpetua, but failed to finish the job until she guided the knife to her throat. About this, the story of their martyrdom comments:

Perhaps so great a woman…could not else have been slain except she willed it.

Although the execution in the Coliseum was intended as entertainment, and enjoyed as such by most of the jeering crowd, some of the spectators, inspired by the martyrs’ fearlessness, became converts. And these spectators were not the last who would be encouraged by Perpetua and Felicitas, who, even at the cost of their lives, worshipped God and not the state.

The date of their martyrdom is traditionally given as 6 March 203. The association of the martyrdom with a birthday festival of the Emperor Geta, however, would seem to place it after 209, when Geta was made emperor, but before 211, when he was assassinated. The bodies of the martyrs were interred at Carthage.

Felicitas and Perpetua (mentioned in that order) are two of seven women saints commemorated by name in the second part of the First Eucharistic Prayer. When St Thomas Aquinas was inserted into the Roman calendar, for celebration on the same day, the memorial for the two African saints was downgraded to a commemoration. This was the situation in the Tridentine Calendar established by Pope Pius V and remained so until 1908, when Pope Pius X brought the date for celebrating them forward to 6 March. In 1969, Pope Paul VI restored the date of their celebration to 7 March (while St Thomas Aquinas was moved to 28 January).

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