Women of Grace: The Courageous Legacy of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity died on March 7, 203

The annals of the Church are full of examples of courageous Catholic women, but few can rival the tale of a young nursing mother and a pregnant woman who showed such fierce courage in the face of death that even the hardest Roman soldiers were brought to their knees.

The story of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, whose feast we celebrate today, was recorded by the hand of Perpetua herself as well as others who knew the women. This account, known as “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity,” was so popular in the early centuries that it was often read during liturgies.

Their story takes place in the year 203 at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, when a young mother named Vibia Perpetua decided to become Christian and accepted baptism. Because her conversion took place during the persecution of Septimus, the life of this 22 year-old noblewoman, who was the mother of a new baby boy, was instantly in danger. While nothing is known about her husband, Perpetua’s father was frantic with worry and tried to talk her out of it.

Her response was to point to a water jug. “”See that pot lying there?” she asked her father. “Can you call it by any other name than what it is?”

Her father answered, “Of course not.”

Perpetua responded, “Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am — a Christian.”

Not long after her announcement, Perpetua was arrested with four other catechumens including a pregnant slave named Felicity. They were tossed into a crowded prison where the heat was suffocating and there was so little light Perpetua wrote that she “had never known such darkness.” They were treated roughly by the soldiers but nothing caused her more pain than being separated from her baby son.

Poor Felicity had it much worse. Not only was she suffering the same squalid prison conditions, but she did so while eight months pregnant.

Thanks to the intervention of two compassionate deacons, the two women were taken to a better part of the prison where Perpetua’s family was permitted to visit with her baby. When the baby was permitted to stay with her, she wrote, “my prison suddenly became a palace for me.”

When she and the others were taken to be examined and sentenced, the judge pitied Perpetua and tried to get her to change her mind but she refused. As a result, she was sentenced to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. Furious at her stubbornness, her father refused to allow her to keep the baby in prison.

While awaiting her execution, Perpetua, who was “gifted with the Lord’s speech,” called upon her brother Dinocrates who had died at seven of gangrene of the face. The disease had rendered him so disfigured that not even the people who should have cared for him were able to stand the sight. Perpetua had a vision of her brother in the afterlife where he was alone and thirsty in a very dark place that was very hot. She began to pray for him daily and even though she spent her days in the stocks, she offered her sufferings and prayers to help her brother. Before she died, she had one more vision of Dinocrates in which he appeared healed and restored of beauty while drinking from a golden bowl that never emptied.

Meanwhile Felicity’s time was drawing near and she was desperate to give birth so as not to delay her execution. It was against the law for pregnant women to be executed because an unborn child was considered sacred to the Romans. Felicity did not want to die alone but wanted to go with her friends and was relieved when labor began two days before their scheduled execution.

It was a terrible experience for her. The guards made fun of her screams of pain. “If you think you suffer now, how will you stand it when you face the wild beasts?” Felicity answered them calmly, “Now I’m the one who is suffering, but in the arena Another will be in me suffering for me because I will be suffering for him.”

She gave birth to a little girl who was eventually adopted by a Christian woman from Carthage.

Throughout this time, the officers of the prison could not help but be impressed by the power and strength of Perpetua and Felicity. The warden became one of their first converts. But others feared them, such as the guards who feared they’d try to weave some kind of magic spell on them if allowed to clean themselves up for their execution. “We’re supposed to die in honor of Ceasar’s birthday,” Perpetua scolded. “Wouldn’t it look better for you if we looked better?” The officers were said to blush with shame at her reproach.

According to eyewitnesses, on the day of their death, they entered the arena with joy and calm. Once inside the arena, the men were attacked by the beasts while the women were stripped to face a rabid heifer. However, when the crowd saw that Felicity had obviously just given birth, they were horrified and the women were removed long enough to be clothed once again. Sent into the arena once more, they were attacked by the beasts and were seen to give each other the kiss of peace just before being put to the sword. The two women stood side by side as the soldiers cut their throats.

Perpetua’s last words were to her brothers in the faith: “Stand fast in the faith and love one another.”

Faith in Action

Most of us will not be called to lay down our lives in a martyrdom of blood. But there are many opportunities to witness for Christ in the face of a culture that is largely opposed to Christian values. What are some concrete ways that we can “stand fast in the faith” and be courageous in our beliefs?

One Response to “Women of Grace: The Courageous Legacy of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity

  1. Pingback: URL