Ss. Perpetua & Felicity: Noblewomen
Feast: March 7 d. 203 Patronage: Mothers, death of children, sterility, widows, cattle, martyrs
"Let us fix our hair." -St. Perpetua to St. Felicity
Saints Perpetua and Felicity are two of the most venerated martyrs of the early Church. The account of their bravery is considered a factual record, and was read throughout all the churches of Africa during their day.
It was during the reign of the despotic Emperor Severus. He issued an edict outlawing the conversion to Christianity. Despite the threat, five Catechumens in Carthage persisted in converting, leading to their capture and imprisonment. Among them were Revocatus, Saturninus, Secundulus, and two women, Perpetua and Felicity.
Perpetua was a young noble woman of 22 years. She had a little son, who was still nursing, and a family that loved her dearly. Felicity was her slave, and was seven months pregnant at the time of their imprisonment. An account of Perpetua's own words describe their situation best:
"We were in the hands of our persecutors, when my father, out of the affection he bore me, made new efforts to shake my resolution. I said to him: 'Can that vessel, which you see, change its name?' He said: 'No.' I replied: 'Nor can I call myself any other than I am, that is to say, a Christian.' At that word my father in a rage fell upon me, as if he would have pulled my eyes out, and beat me: but went away in confusion, seeing me invincible: after this we enjoyed a little repose, and in that interval received baptism. The Holy Ghost, on our coming out of the water, inspired me to pray for nothing but patience under corporal pains. A few days after this we were put into prison: I was shocked at the horror and darkness of the place, for till then I knew not what such sort of places were. We suffered much that day, chiefly on account of the great heat caused by the crowd, and the ill-treatment we met with from the soldiers. I was moreover tortured with concern, for that I had not my infant...." The time came for the five neophytes to be examined by the prefect. All held fast to the faith, and "confessed boldly Jesus Christ.” When it was Perpetua's turn to take the stand, her father appeared, holding her son before her, as if to tempt her to recant. The prefect walked to her father, and taunted her, "What! Will neither the gray hairs of a father you are going to make miserable, nor the tender innocence of a child, which your death will leave an orphan, move you? ...Are you then a Christian?"
Perpetua responded: "Yes, I am." Her father desperately attempted to grab her, but was held back and beaten by the guards. The male prisoners were then scourged, and Perpetua and Felicity were beaten in the face. After this, the judge sentenced them to death in the arena by wild beasts.
In true Christian fashion, the soon-to-be martyrs went joyfully back to prison. It was decided that their entry into the arena would be put off until a festival that would draw greater crowds. While waiting for death, Perpetua had several visions. She dreamt she was taken into the arena to fight a gladiator, and she was victorious. When she woke, she realized they were "not so much to combat with wild beasts as with the devils."
The days of waiting turned into a month, and Secundulus died of his scourge wounds. Felicity was now eight months pregnant. She was worried that she would not have the baby in time to join her friends in the arena because Romans would not execute a mother who was expecting a child (even pagan Rome acknowledged life in the womb!) The friends joined in fervent prayer that Felicity might deliver her child. They had bare- ly finished praying when Felicity's labor began. As she cried out in pain, a guard jeered at her, "If you cannot bear the throes of childbirth without crying out, what will you do when exposed to the wild beasts?" Felicity turned to him and said, "It is I that suffer what I now suffer; but then there will be another in me that will suffer for me, because I shall suffer for him."
Felicity gave birth to a little girl who was taken in by fellow Christians as their own.
The eve of martyrdom was at hand. It was the custom that the captors be given a "free meal" that was eaten in public, so that people could come and see who would be sport in the circus the next day. The companions used the meal as a chance to witness to Christ, and did not eat in sullen fear, but spoke freely of God's justice, and the joy they had in their own sufferings. Saturus spoke to those who came to watch, "Will not tomorrow suffice to satisfy your inhuman curiosity in our regard? However you may seem now to pity us, tomorrow you will clap your hands at our death, and applaud our murderers. But observe well our faces, that you may know them again at that terrible day when all men shall be judged."
Many bystanders were converted at his words. The day of the games was at hand. As they entered the roaring amphitheater, amidst those thirsty for blood, they did not grow faint. As they passed the man who had sentenced them, the men yelled, "You judge us in this world, but God will judge you In the next!” This incensed the crowd, who clamored that they be punished with scourging. Each received a lash, but instead of crying out in pain, they praised Jesus and declared themselves blessed to imitate his suffering.
Now, it was time for the final battle. The beasts were released. Saturninus and Revocatus, were savaged by a leopard, and then by a bear. Saturus was terrified of the bear, and prayed that he would die at once by the leopard. The leopard jumped on Saturus, and he was soon covered in blood. The crowd screamed in gross mockery, yelling, ”He is well baptized!” In his last breath, Saturus spoke to the jailer who had converted over their months imprisonment, ”Go, remember my faith, and let our sufferings rather strengthen than trouble you. Give me the ring you have on your finger." Saturus, then touched the ring to his wound and returned it to him, dying soon after.
In another part of the arena, Perpetua and Felicity were contending with a wild cow. The cow assailed Perpetua, and threw her so she fell on her back. When Perpetua re- covered she saw her clothes were torn and gathered them about her, more concerned with modesty than her wounds. Felicity was now under attack and had fallen to the ground, even more badly hurt than Perpetua. At this Perpetua stood up, and helped her companion to her feet, saying, "Let us fix our hair.” This was so they would not look like mourners going to their own deaths. They stood their ground together but were surprised at no more attacks from the wild animals.
They were then led to where they would await death by Gladiator. Perpetua was in a state of ecstasy, and was asking when she would fight the wild cow. She did not even believe she had been attacked, until she saw her torn and bloodied clothes. She cried out to her brother, exerting him, "Continue firm in the faith, love one another, and be not scandalized at our sufferings."
The onlookers were screaming for their blood. Perpetua and Felicity walked towards their executioners. Felicity fell first at the hand of a gladiator, but Perpetua was only wounded, because the apprentice gladiator to whom she had been assigned was so nervous. She guided the sword herself in order for him to finish her.
Although the two women lay in the dust of the arena, in what looked like defeat, they had already received the most splendid crowns of victory.