Monday, March 8, 2021

Celebrating International Women's Day: Remembering the Courageous Story of Saints Perpetua and Felicity

Honoring the Story and Power of Saints Perpetua and Felicity's Courage on their March 7 Feast Day and International Women's Day on March 8

I have been led by, strengthened by, and loved by strong women throughout my life, including grandmothers, mothers, sisters, my wife, my daughters, bosses, friends, family, and more.

Women have also showcased immense strength to me in their display of faith including Naomi, Ruth, and Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary Paik Lee, Sophie Scholl, and Dorothy Day, hermanas like Noemi Vega Quiñones and Natalia Kohn Rivera, Mother Mary herself, as well as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Hannah More, Harriet Tubman, Mother Theresa, Elisabeth Elliot, and many, many others including some who are part of Emmaus City Church.

So it is an honor to celebrate the women of the present alongside the women of the past on March 8, for International Women's Day (loved the Google Doodle for the celebration a couple years ago, too). And below I also want to highlight two women, Perpetua and Felicity, specifically whose story amazes me and whose Feast Day on the Christian calendar is March 7. 

We have record of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity's bold story from more than 1,800 years ago in the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, a lengthy account of public witness mostly written by Perpetua (and an eye witness who recorded her last days and the day of her death) about women and men who were sentenced to death in the Carthage amphitheater. It is the most substantial example of writing by a Christian woman in the first three centuries after Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

A Summary of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity's Final Days 

Please be advised that some of the story is graphic and may prove hard to take for some sensitive readers.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were Christian martyrs who lived during the early persecution of the Church in Northern Africa by the Emperor Severus during the early 200s A.Ds. 
Vivia Perpetua kept a diary during her last days, while she awaited her execution. Her diary, along with an eyewitness’s account of her death, is one of the oldest, most reliable histories of a martyr’s sufferings. This account was so popular in the early centuries that it was read during liturgies during mass, and it was passed down to encourage other Christians to witness to the world with their lives—to teach others that greater than life itself is knowing Jesus and being loyal to Him and the Gospel of His Kingdom. 
Perpetua’s account records the events that took place in Carthage, Africa, in the years 202-203 A.D., when the Emperor Severus issued an anti-Christian law forbidding anyone to be baptized and become a follower of Jesus Christ. Perpetua, a well-educated noblewoman, countered the law and made the decision to follow the path of her mother and become a Christian, although she knew it could mean her death due to the persecutions ordered by the emperor.  
At twenty-two-years-old the well-educated, high-spirited woman had every reason to want to live, including a baby son whom she was still nursing. We know she was married, but since her husband is never mentioned, many historians assume she was already a widow. 
Her surviving brother (another brother had died when he was seven) followed her lead and became a catechumen alongside her, meaning they would continue to receive instruction in the Christian faith and be prepared for baptism. Her pagan father was frantic with worry and tried to talk her out of her decision, but she refused, saying, “Father do you see this water jar, or whatever it is, standing here? Could one call it by any other name than what it is? Well, in the same way I cannot be called by any other name than what I am—a Christian.” 
Perpetua was arrested along with four other catechumens, including two slaves, Felicity and Revocatus, and Saturninus and Secundulus. All were tried and sentenced to be thrown to the wild beasts in the amphitheater during a national holiday when sports events and various games would also be celebrated.   
The prison they stayed in was so crowded with people that the heat was suffocating. There was no light anywhere and Perpetua "had never known such darkness."  The soldiers who arrested and guarded them pushed and shoved them without any concern. Perpetua had no trouble admitting she was very afraid, but during all this horror, her most excruciating pain came from being separated from her baby. The young slave, Felicity, was even worse off, for she suffered the stifling heat, overcrowding, and rough handling while being eight months pregnant.  
Two Christian deacons who bravely ministered to the prisoners made the decision to pay the guards to place the martyrs in a better part of the prison. There, Perpetua's mother and brother were able to visit her and bring her baby to her. When Perpetua received permission for her baby to stay with her she recalled, "my prison suddenly became a palace for me." Once more her father came to her, begging her to give in, kissing her hands, and throwing himself at her feet. She told him, "We lie not in our own power but in the power of God." When she and the others were taken to be examined and sentenced, her father followed, pleading with her and the judge. The judge, out of pity, also tried to get Perpetua to change her mind, but when she stood fast, she was sentenced with the others to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena.
During the days before their execution, their teacher Saturus voluntarily joined the catechumens so that he might die for Christ with them. While they were awaiting death, Perpetua, along with Felicity and her companions, were baptized.  
But Felicity was also in torment. It was against the law for pregnant women to be executed. To kill a child in the womb was shedding innocent and sacred blood. Felicity was afraid that she would not give birth before the day set for their martyrdom and her companions would suffer and be killed on a day before her own execution. However, two days before the group's scheduled execution, Felicity went into a painful labor. In her pain she screamed. The guards made fun of her, insulting her by saying, "If you think you suffer now, how will you stand it when you face the wild beasts?" Felicity answered them calmly, "Now I suffer what I suffer; but then in the arena Another will be in me who will suffer for me, as I shall suffer for Him."  
Felicity gave birth to a healthy girl in the prison that day. This Carthaginian child was then taken out of the prison and was adopted and raised by one of the Christian women of Carthage. 
As the execution grew imminent, the officers of the prison began to recognize the power of the Christians and the strength and leadership of Perpetua and Saturus. In some cases, this helped the Christians: the commandant of the jail, Pudens, let them have visitors. Then Pudens became a believer himself. Saturus admonished Pudens, "Remember me, and remember the faith." 
The prisoners' last meal together became a worship service at the Lord's Table, which for North African Christians in this period was both agape meal and the sacrament of the Eucharist.
On the day of the execution, when those at the arena tried to force Perpetua and the rest to dress in robes dedicated to their gods, Perpetua challenged her executioners. "We came to die out of our own free will so we wouldn't lose our freedom to worship our God. We gave you our lives so that we wouldn't have to worship your gods." She and the others were allowed to keep their own clothes for the time being. 
The men were first attacked by bears, leopards, and wild boars. And then Perpetua and Felicity were forced to face a rabid heifer. However, when the two women were stripped and the provoked cow tossed them, the crowd recoiled in horror. At the crowd's demand the two women were brought out and dressed again, but near the end, the crowd's frenzy heightened, and they asked that all the Christians, Perpetua and Felicity included, be brought together to a central spot where they could see clearly as the gladiators' swords finished them off.
Before the gladiators and the crowd, Perpetua called out to her brother and other Christians, "Stand fast in the faith, and love one another. Do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you." The crowd saw the executions; but they also saw the Christians mustering the strength of body and will to stand up, gather themselves as a group in the specified spot and give a final embodied witness. These women and men, slave and free, poor and advantaged, drew near together in strength "that they might bring their martyrdom to completion with the kiss of peace." Exhausted and in pain though they were, in their last moments, they embodied the love of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom that transcended social barriers.
Perpetua and Felicity stood side by side along with their companions and were killed by sword at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. 
+ content compiled from resources from Loyola PressCatholic Online, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church by Charles Williams (one of the Inklings, a literary discussion group comprised of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, among others), and the excellent book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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