Saints Felicitas, Perpetua and Companions
Felicitas and Perpetua are two of the saints commemorated in the Canon of the Mass. Their feast, which actually falls on the seventh of March, is often celebrated on the sixth to avoid conflict with the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The story of these martyrs and their companions is found in a kind of diary kept by Perpetua while she was in prison awaiting execution, and this was later augmented by an unknown eye-witness to the martyrdom.
The martyrs in this story lived in the North African city of Carthage, at a time when it was part of the Roman Empire; they had come under an edict issued by the emperor Severus in the year 202, declaring death to be the penalty for being a Christian. There were six of them: Perpetua, a young noblewoman recently married, with her baby boy; Felicitas, a slave girl expecting a child; and four men – Revocatus, a slave, and Secundulus, Saturninus and Saturus.
Perpetua begins her diary at the time when she had decided to be baptized and was forced to withstand the arguments of her father against this step. She endured his pleading as long as she could, and then spoke: Father, I said, Do you see this vessel lying here – waterpot or whatever it may be? I see it, he said. And I said to him, Can it be called by any other name that what it is? And he answered, No. So also I cannot call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian. Here, Perpetua’s basic decision, the one that caused her martyrdom, had already been made; she had realized that to be a follower of Christ was more important to her than anything else, life included, and that she must be baptized regardless of the consequences.
She was arrested with the others a few days after their baptism. In her diary she described her first day in prison: I was in great fear, because I had never known such darkness. What a day of horror! Terrible heat, thanks to the crowds! Rough handling by the soldiers! To crown all I was tormented there by anxiety for my baby. Her concern for her baby, whom she was still nursing, was her hardest trial, and when she finally obtained permission to keep him with her in prison she wrote: My prison suddenly became a palace to me, and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.
While awaiting trial with her companions, Perpetua experienced the first of several visions that continued throughout her imprisonment: she found herself ascending a brazen ladder, to the sides of which were fastened sharp instruments – daggers, swords, lances, hooks – that tear the flesh of the unwary. When she reached the top, she found herself in a vast expanse of garden where a tall man with white hair, in the dress of a shepherd, was milking sheep. He told her, You have well come, my child, and gave her some of the milk. Perpetua writes that by this dream she and her companions understood that we must suffer, and henceforward began to have no hope in this world.
The next events in the diary are two examinations of the Christians by the Roman authorities; the second was the decisive one and took place in the market square, where a vast crowd gathered. This is Perpetua’s description of it: We went up onto the platform, The others on being questioned confessed their faith. So it came to my turn. And there was my father, with my child, and he drew me down from the step beseeching me: Have pity on your baby. And the procurator Hilarion… said to me: Spare your father’s white hairs; spare the tender years of your child. Offer a sacrifice for the safety of the emperors. And I answered: No. Are you a Christian? asked Hilarion. And I answered: I am… Then he passed sentence on all of us, and condemned us to the beasts; and in great joy we went down into the prison.
The martyrs were forced to wait now; they were being saved for the holiday that would be held on the birthday of the emperor’s son when, in the amphitheater, the Christians were to be given to the wild animals. During this time, Perpetua experienced more visions, in the last of which she went to the amphitheater, was transformed into a man, and engaged in combat with an Egyptian, foul of look (the devil). She overcame the Egyptian and understood this to mean that she would undergo martyrdom successfully. Her account ends after the description of this vision with the words, Such were my doing up to the day before the games. Of what was done in the games themselves, let him write who will.
The unknown contributor continued the story from here, first describing some other events of the last days in prison. He writes that Felicitas was in great sorrow for fear lest, because of her pregnancy, her martyrdom should be delayed, since it is against the law for women with child to be exposed for punishment. She and the others prayed that her child might come, even though it was not yet due, and two days before the games Felicitas gave birth to a girl. But the children were taken from their mothers as the final day, March 7, 203, arrived.
The day of the victory dawned, and they proceeded from their prison to the amphitheater, as if they were on their way to heaven, with gay and gracious looks; trembling, if at all, not with fear but joy. Perpetua followed with shining steps as the true spouse of Christ, as the darling of God, abashing with the high spirit in her eyes the gaze of all. The officials tried to force the Christians to put on the costumes of pagan gods before entering the arena, as the custom was at such times, but Perpetua resisted steadfastly… For she said: Therefore we came to this issue of our own free will, that our liberty might not be violated; therefore we pledged our lives, that we might do no such thing: this was our pact with you. Injustice acknowledged justice; the commanding officer gave permission that they should enter the arena in their ordinary dress.
They proceeded into the amphitheater, and the ordeal began. Saturninus was mauled to death by a leopard and a bear, and Saturus was killed by the leopard. The two women were exposed to a mad heifer: Perpetua was tossed first, and fell on her back. Sitting down she drew back her torn tunic from her side to cover her thighs, more mindful of her modesty than of her suffering… Then she rose, and seeing that Felicitas was bruised, approached, gave a hand to her, and lifted her up. And the two stood side by side, and the cruelty of the people being now appeased, they were recalled to the Gate of Life. This was an entrance to the arena where those who were victorious in combat were allowed to leave; the mob was fickle, however, as mobs always are, and it was soon shouting for blood again. When the martyrs heard this they rose unbidden and made their way whither the people willed, after first kissing one another… The rest, without a movement, in silence received the sword… Perpetua, however, that she might taste something of the pain, was struck (by mistake) on the side and cried out, and herself guided to her throat the wavering hand of the young, untried gladiator.
This is all that is written; yet, what more can be said? The story of courage and faith speaks for itself.
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