Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, Martyrs
The real Feast of these two illustrious heroines of the Faith is to-morrow, which is the anniversary of their martyrdom and triumph; but the memory of the Angel of the Schools, St. Thomas of Aquin, shines so brightly on the seventh of March, that it almost eclipses the two glorious stars of Africa. In consequence of this, the Holy See allows certain Churches to anticipate their Feast, and keep it today. We take advantage of this permission, and at once offer to the Christian reader the glorious spectacle, of which Carthage was the scene, in the year 203. Nothing could give us a clearer idea of that spirit of the Gospel, according to which we are now studying to conform our whole life. Here are two women, two mothers; God asks great sacrifices from them; he asks them to give him their lives, nay, more than their lives; and they obey with that simplicity and devotedness which made Abraham merit to be the Father of Believers.
Their two names, as St. Augustine observes, are a presage of what awaits them in heaven: a perpetual felicity. The example they set of Christian fortitude, is, of itself, a victory, which secures to the true Faith, a triumph in the land of Africa. St. Cyprian will soon follow them, with his bold and eloquent appeal to the African Christians, inspiring them to die for their Faith: but his words, grand as they are, are less touching than the few pages written by the hand of the brave Perpetua, who, though only twenty-two years of age, relates, with all the self-possession of an angel, the trials she had to go through for God; and when she had to hurry off, to the amphitheatre, she puts her pen into another’s hand, bidding him go on where she leaves off, and write the rest of the battle. As we read these charming pages, we seem to be in the company of the Martyrs; the power of divine grace, which could produce such heroism amidst a people demoralised by paganism, appears so great that even we grow courageous; and the very fact that the instruments employed by God for the destruction of the pagan world, were frequently women, we cannot help saying with St. John Chrysostom: “I feel an indescribable pleasure in reading the Acts of the Martyrs; but when the Martyr is a woman, my enthusiasm is doubled. For the frailer the instrument, the greater is the grace, the brighter the trophy, the grander the victory; and this, not because of her weakness, but because the devil is conquered by her, by whom he once couquered us. He conquered by a woman, and now a woman conquers him. She that was once his weapon, is now his destroyer, brave and invincible. That first one sinned, and died; this one died that she might not sin. Eve was flushed by a lying promise, and broke the law of God; our heroine disdained to live, when her living was to depend on her breaking her faith to Him who was her dearest Lord. What excuse, after this, for men, if they be soft and cowards? Can they hope for pardon, when women fought the holy battle with such brave, and manly, and generous hearts?”
The Lessons appointed to be read on the Feast of our two Saints, give us the principal incidents of their Martyrdom. The passage from the account written by Perpetua herself, which is quoted in these Lessons, will make some of our readers long to read the whole of what she has left us. They will find it in our first volume of the Acts of the Martyrs.
During the reign of the Emperor Severus, several Catechumens were apprehended at Carthage, in Africa. Among these were Revocatus and his fellow servant Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and Vivia Perpetua, a lady by birth and education, who was married to a man of wealth. Perpetua was about twenty-two years of age, and was suckling an infant. She has left us the following particulars of her martyrdom. “As soon as our persecutors had apprehended us, my father came to me, and, out of his great love for me, he tried to make me change my resolution. I said to him: ‘Father, I cannot consent to call myself other than what I am,–a Christian. At these words he rushed at me, threatening to tear out my eyes. But he only struck me, and then he left me, when he found that the arguments suggested to him by the devil, were of no avail. A few days after this, we were baptised; and the Holy Ghost inspired me to look on this baptism as a preparation for bodily suffering. A few more days elapsed, and we were sent to prison. I was terrified, for I was not accustomed to such darkness. The report soon spread that we were to be brought to trial. My father left the city, for he was heartbroken, and he came to me, hoping to shake my purpose. These were his words to me: ‘My child, have pity on my old age. Have pity on thy father, if I deserve to be called Father. Think of thy brothers, think of thy mother, think of thy son, who cannot live when thou art gone. Give up this mad purpose, or thou wilt bring misery upon thy family.’ Whilst saying this, which he did out of love for me, he threw himself at my feet, and wept bitterly, and said he besought this of me, not as his child, but as his lady. I was moved to tears to see my aged parent in this grief, for I knew that he was the only one of my family that would not rejoice at my being a martyr. I tried to console him, and said: ‘I will do whatsoever God shall ordain. Thou knowest that we belong to God, and not to ourselves.’ He then left me, and was very sad.
“On the following day, as we were taking our repast, they came upon us suddenly, and summoned us to trial. We reached the forum. We were made to mount a platform. My companions were questioned, and they confessed the faith. My turn came next, and I immediately saw my father approaching towards me, holding my infant son. He drew me from the platform, and besought me, saying: ‘Have pity on thy babe!’ Hilarian, too, the governor, said to me: ‘Have pity on thy aged father, have pity on thy babe! Offer up sacrifice for the Emperors.’ I answered him: ‘I cannot; I am a Christian.’ Whereupon, he sentences all of us to be devoured by the wild beasts; and we, full of joy, return to our prison. But as I had hitherto always had my child with me in prison, and fed him at my breast, I immediately send word to my father, beseeching him to let him come to me. He refused; and from that moment, neither the babe asked for the breast, nor did I suffer inconvenience; for God thus willed it.”
All this is taken from the written account left by the blessed Perpetua, and it brings us to the day before she was put to death. As regards Felicitas, she was in the eighth month of her pregnancy, when she was apprehended. The day of the public shows was near at hand, and the fear that her martyrdom would be deferred on account of her being with child, made her very sad. Her fellow-martyrs, too, felt much for her, for they could not bear the thought of seeing so worthy a companion disappointed in the hope, she had in common with themselves, of so soon reaching heaven.
Uniting, therefore, in prayer, they with tears besought God in her behalf. It was the last day but two before the public shows. No sooner was their prayer ended, than Felicitas was seized with pain. One of the gaolers, who overheard her moaning, cried out: ‘If this pain seem to thee so great, what wilt thou dowhen thou art being devoured by the wild beasts, which thou pretendedst to heed not when thou wast told to offer sacrifice.’ She answered: ‘What I am suffering now, it is indeed I that suffer; but there, there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I shall be suffering for Him.’ She was delivered of a daughter, and one of our sisters adopted the infant as her own.
The day of their victory dawned. They left their prison for the amphitheatre, cheerful, and with faces beaming with joy, as though they were going to heaven. They were excited, but it was from delight, not from fear. The last in the group was Perpetua. Her placid look, her noble gait, betrayed the Christian matron. She passed through the crowd and saw no one, for her beautiful eyes were fixed upon the ground. By her side was Felicitas, rejoicing that her safe delivery enabled her to encounter the wild beasts. The devil had prepared a savage cow for them. They were put into a net. Felicitas was brought forward the first. She was tossed into the air, and fell upon her back. Observing that one side of her dress was torn, she adjusted it, heedless of her pain, because thoughtful for modesty. Having recovered from the fall, she put up her hair which was disheveled by the shock, for it was not seemly that a martyr should win her palm and have the appearance of one distracted by grief. This done, she stood up. Seeing Felicitas much bruised by her fall, she went to her, and giving her her hand, she raised her from the ground. Both were now ready for a fresh attack; but the people were moved to pity, and the martyrs were led to the gate called Sana-Vivaria. There Perpetua, like one that is roused from sleep, awoke from the deep ecstacy of her spirit. She looked around her, and said to the astonished multitude: ‘When will the cow attack us? They told her that it had already attacked them. She could not believe it, until her wounds and torn dress reminded her of what had happened. Then beckoning to her brother, and to a catechumen named Kusticus, she thus spoke to them. ‘Be staunch in the faith, and love one another, and be not shocked at our sufferings.’
God soon took Secundulus from this world, for he died whilst he was in the prison. Saturninus and Revocatus were exposed first to a leopard, and then to a bear. Saturus was exposed to a boar, and then to a bear, which would not come out of its den; thus was he twice left uninjured : but at the close of the games, he was thrown to a leopard, which bit him so severely, that he was all covered with blood, and as he was taken from the amphitheatre, the people jeered at him for this second baptism, and said: ‘Saved, washed! Saved, washed!’ He was then carried off, dying as he was, to the appointed place, there to be despatched by the sword, with the rest. But the people demanded that they should be led back to the middle of the amphitheatre, that their eyes might feast on the sight, and watch the sword as it pierced them.
The Martyrs hearing their request, cheerfully stood up, and marched to the place where the people would have them go; but first they embraced one another, that the sacrifice of their martyrdom might be consummated with the solemn kiss of peace. All of them, without so much as a movement or a moan, received the swordman’s blow, save only Saturus, who died from his previous wounds, and Perpetua, who was permitted to feel more than the rest. Her executioner was a novice in his work, and could not thrust his sword through her ribs: she slightly moaned, then took his right hand, and pointing his sword towards her throat, told him that that was the place to strike. Perhaps it was that such a woman could not be otherwise slain than by her own consent, for the unclean spirit feared her.
Perpetua! Felicitas! Oh! glorious and prophetic names, which come like two bright stars of March, pouring out upon us your rays of light and life! You are heard in the songs of the Angels; and we poor sinners, as we echo them on earth, are told to love and hope. You remind us of that brave woman, who, as the Scripture says, kept up the battle begun by men: The valiant men ceased: who will follow them? A Mother in Israel (Judges, v. 7). Glory be to that Almighty power, which loves to choose the weak things of the world that it may confound the strong (I. Cor. i. 27)! Glory to the Church of Africa, the daughter of the Church of Rome; and glory to the Church of Carthage, which had not then heard the preachings of her Cyprian, and yet could produce two such noble hearts!
As to thee, Perpetua, thou art held in veneration by the whole Christian world. Thy name is mentioned by God’s Priests in the Holy Mass, and thus thy memory is associated with the Sacrifice of the Man God, for love of whom thou didst lay down thy life. And those pages written by thine own hand, how they reveal to us the generous character of thy soul! how they comment those words of the Canticle: Love is strong as death (Cant. viii. 6)! When the hard trial came of resisting a father, who wished thee to lay down the palm of martyrdom,–how bravely didst thou not triumph over thy filial affection, in order to save that which is due to our Father who is in heaven! Nay, when the hardest test came,–when the babe that fed at thy breast was taken from thee in thy prison,–even then thy love was strong enough for the sacrifice, as was Abraham’s, when he had to immolate his Isaac.
Thy fellow-martyrs deserve our admiration; they are so grand in their courage; but thou, dear Saint, surpassest them all. Thy love makes thee more than brave in thy sufferings, it makes thee forget them. “Where wast thou,” we would ask thee in the words of St. Augustine, “where wast thou, that thou didst not feel the goading of that furious beast, asking when it was to be, as though it had not been? Where wast thou? What didst thou see, that made thee see not this? On what wast thou feasting, that made thee dead to sense? What was the love that absorbed, what was the sight that distracted, what was the chalice that inebriated thee? And yet the ties of flesh were still holding thee,the claims of death were still upon thee, the corruptible body was still weighing thee down (Sermon for the Feast of SS. Perpetua and Felicitas)!” But our Lord had prepared thee for the final struggle, by asking sacrifice at thy hands. This made thy life wholly spiritual, and gave thy soul to dwell, by love, with Him, who had asked thee for all and received it; and thus living in union with Jesus, thy spirit was all but a stranger to the body it animated.
It was impatient to be wholly with its Sovereign Good. Thy eager hand directs the sword that is to set thee free; and as the executioner severs the last tie that holds thee, how voluntary was thy sacrifice, how hearty thy welcome of death! Truly, thou wast the Valiant, the Strong Woman (Prov. xxxi. 10), that conqueredst the wicked serpent! Thy greatness of soul has merited for thee a high place among the heroines of our holy Faith, and for sixteen hundred years thou hast been honoured by the enthusiastic devotion and love of the servants of God.
And thou, too, Felicitas! receive the homage of our veneration, for thou wast found worthy to be a fellow-martyr with Perpetua. Though she was a rich matron of Carthage, and thou a servant, yet Baptism and Martyrdom made you companions and sisters. The Lady and the Slave embraced, for Martyrdom made you equal; and as the spectators saw you hand in hand together, they must have felt, that there was a power in the Religion they persecuted, which would put an end to Slavery. The power and grace of Jesus triumphed in thee, as it did in Perpetua; and thus was fulfilled thy sublime answer to the pagan, who dared to jeer thee,–that when the hour of trial came, it would not be thou that wouldst suffer, but Christ, who would suffer in thee. Heaven is now the reward of thy sacrifice; well didst thou merit it. And that babe, that was born in thy prison, what a happy child to have for its mother a Martyr in heaven! How wouldst thou not bless both it and the mother who adopted it! Oh! what fitness, in such a soul as thine, for the Kingdom of God (St. Luke, ix. 62)! Not once looking back, but ever bravely speeding onwards to him that called thee. Thy felicity is perpetual in heaven; thy glory on earth shall never cease.
And now, dear Saints, Perpetua and Felicitas, intercede for us during this season of grace. Go, with your palms in your hands, to the throne of God, and beseech Him to pour down His mercy upon us. It is true, the days of paganism are gone by; and there are no persecutors clamouring for our blood. You, and countless other Martyrs, have won victory for Faith; and that Faith is now ours; we are Christians. But there is a second paganism, which has taken deep root among us. It is the source of that corruption which now pervades every rank of society, and its own two sources are indifference, which chills the heart, and sensuality, which induces cowardice. Holy Martyrs! pray for us that we may profit by the example of your virtues, and that the thought of your heroic devotedness may urge us to be courageous in the sacrifices which God claims at our hands. Pray, too, for the Churches which are now being established on that very spot of Africa, which was the scene of your glorious martyrdom: bless them, and obtain for them, by your powerful intercession, firmness of faith and purity of morals. Amen
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.