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Sts. Perpetua & Felicity (March 7)

March 7, 2005

The year was 203 and Carthage, once a bitter enemy of Rome,
was now the capitol of the Roman province of Africa Nova (New Africa),
second only to Rome itself in importance and influence.
Carthage, an African port city in what is now Tunisia
(across the Mediterranean from the boot of Italy via Sicily),
was a major business and trade center as well as a political power.
It soon became a center of Christianity as well,
as we learn from the early Church Father Tertullian
(who broke away from the Church just a few years after this).
Indeed, Pope Victor I, who served from 189-199, was African
(although it’s not clear if he was from Carthage).
Septimius Severus, a Roman Emperor (ruling from 193-211)
who saw this growing new religion as a national threat,
issued an edict in 202 forbidding conversion to Christianity and Judaism.
Persecution, especially in the provinces of Africa and Egypt,
where the Christian population was large and growing, began in earnest.

Among those put under surveillance in Carthage were Vibia Perpetua
(Vibia seems to have been a family name)
and her slave Felicity, both of whom were catechumens.
Perpetua was of noble birth, well-educated
(she wrote the story of their imprisonment herself
one of the earliest Christian documents written by a woman)
and honorably married.
She had one son, whom she was still nursing.
Felicity was with child.

During this period of house arrest, Perpetua’s pagan father pleaded with her
to renounce her faith out of love for him.
She said to him: “Can that vessel, which you see, change its name?”
He said: “No” She replied: “Nor can I call myself any other than I am, that is to say, a Christian”
(Butler’s Lives of the Saints).
Enraged, he beat her, then went away.

A few days later the two women were Baptized, and a few days after that they were taken to prison.
Perpetua was shaken by this experience–the heat of the crowds, the cruel treatment by the soldiers,
the darkness of the cell and separation from her baby were new and frightening to this noblewoman.
Some deacons, who had been caring for their spiritual needs, relieved their physical suffering as well,
paying the guards to transfer the women to a better part of the prison.
They also brought Perpetua’s malnourished baby to her so that she was able to feed him,
but it was several days later before she was allowed to keep him in prison with her.

Perpetua’s brother, also a catechumen, asked her to ask God
whether her imprisonment would lead to her release or to her martyrdom.
This she did, and in the resulting vision, she found herself climbing a treacherous ladder to Heaven, stepping on a dragon’s head (symbolic of crushing the devil).
She reported to her brother that she was going to die.

A report went out a few days later that they were about to be tried,
and her father came again to plead with her not to disgrace her family.
She was grieved that he alone, of all her family, would not rejoice at her victory,
and tried to comfort him by telling him that whatever happened was in God’s hands.
He went away sorrowful.
At the trial itself he tried again, bringing her infant son and urging her not to abandon him.
Finally the guards beat her father for his intrusion,
and she grieved his injury as much as if she herself had been beaten.
After the women had been sentenced to death,
she sent a deacon to her father to ask for the return of her son (it was feeding-time), but he refused.
God provided.
The child was weaned then & there, and Perpetua’s milk dried up without incident.

Some days later, the Lord brought to Perpetua’s mind the urge to pray for Dinocrates,
her younger brother, who had died of a disfiguring, ulcerating disease at the age of seven.
She had a vision of him coming from a dark place, dirty, pale, hot and thirsty,
with the ulcers still on his face.
He came to a font full of water and tried to drink, but it was too high for him to reach.
Perpetua began to pray for him in earnest day and night.
When she and the other prisoners were transferred to the military camp
where their execution would be a public spectacle,
she had another vision, this one of Dinocrates clean, finely clothed, healthy,
in comfort and drinking as much as he wanted from a golden cup.
When he’d had enough, he began to play, joyfully, as children do.
Perpetua understood from this that her prayers had been answered,
that he had been freed from Purgatory and was now happy in Heaven.

Perpetua’s father came to visit her yet again, pulling out his beard, cursing his years
and generally trying to break her heart with sympathy for him.

In the meantime, Felicity was having problems of her own.
The “games” at which they were to be martyred were only three days away
and she was still with child, eight months along.
Because it was not lawful to execute a woman who was with child,
she was likely to be left behind.
Her fellow-prisoners did not wish to leave her alone to be executed later with common criminals,
so all prayed fervently for the birth of her child.
As soon as they finished praying, her labor began.
The guards taunted her when she cried out in the pains of labor–
if she couldn’t handle this, how was she going to face the beasts?
She answered, “I myself now suffer that which I suffer,
but there another shall be in me who shall suffer for me,
because I am to suffer for him”.
She gave birth to a baby girl, who was adopted by a Christian woman
who raised the child as her own daughter.

In a final vision, Perpetua saw herself as a gladiator,
which surprised her, since they’d been sentenced to face the beasts.
Her helpers prepared her for the contest and she vanquished her foe,
receiving the branch of victory.
From this vision, she learned that she was to fight, not the beasts,
but rather the devil, and that she would be victorious.

By this time, the second-in-command of the prison had become a believer.
Many more came to believe when they came to gawk at the prisoners during their last meal,
which the Christians celebrated as a love-feast.
Tertullian has left us a description of such a meal.
It began with a prayer, after which the guests took their places and shared a meal
(to which all contributed),
during which they conversed on pious subjects.
Then they washed their hands, the hall was lit and they sang psalms and improvised hymns,
concluding with a final prayer.
Sometimes such meals were followed by the celebration of the Eucharist, but not always.

Finally the day of their execution dawned, this date in the year 203.
The women came to the amphitheater joyfully.
Perpetua even began to sing.
They refused to put on the customary dress of the priestesses of Ceres
(the whole point was to die as a Christian, not a pagan).

Their ordeal began with a scourging, and they rejoiced to share in this way in Jesus’ sufferings.
Then the men (their fellow Christians) were exposed to a boar, a bear and a leopard
while the women waited.
When their turn came, Perpetua and Felicity were stripped, made to put on nets, and sent into the arena.
The sight of such young women (Perpetua was only 22), so obviously new mothers,
was too much for the crowd, so they were called back and clad in loose robes.
In mockery of their femininity, their persecutors set against them a savage cow,
which charged at them with her horns, throwing Perpetua into the air,
wounding her and tearing her robe.
More concerned for modesty than pain,
Perpetua drew her robe over her exposed thigh and pinned up her hair.
Disheveled hair was a sign of mourning
and she did not want to look as though she were grieving on the day of her victory.
Then she went to help Felicity up, prepared to meet the next charge of the cow together.
The crowd, however, cried that it was enough.
They were called over to the “Gate of Life” where Perpetua, coming to herself as if from an ecstasy,
asked when they were to be thrown to the cow.
It was only when she examined her rent clothing and wounds
that she believed that it had already happened.
She then encouraged her brother and another catechumen to stand fast in the faith.

The martyrs exchanged the kiss of peace and returned to the center of the arena,
where they were to be slain with the sword.
Perpetua’s executioner, new to this sort of thing, missed.
He pierced her between the bones so that she cried out.
She herself set the sword at the proper place on her neck so that he wouldn’t miss again.

Thus did the these valiant women vanquish the devil and win the crown of martyrdom.

Saints Perpetua and Felicity, please pray with us for our non-Catholic family members,
especially those who grieve us, and pray that we will know how to respond to them in holy love.
Pray with us for young mothers, that they may embrace their vocation with courage.
Pray for us when our faith costs us,
and pray for all who are suffering persecution for their faith,
especially those in your native land of Africa.


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