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Saints Perpetua and Felicity

‘So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am—a Christian.’

The story of Saints Perpetua and Felicity is recorded in the "Passion of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas and their companions" compiled from Saint Perpetua's own diary, her teacher Saturus and eye witnesses. At 22, Saint Perpetua was married and had a baby, but it is likely that her husband had died already as he is unmentioned in her diary. By all accounts she was very beautiful, well-educated and was of noble rank in Carthage. In the year 203, she made a forever life changing decision - to follow in the steps of her mother and become a follower of The Way (Christianity). A very short time before telling her father, she was baptized and was told to pray for nothing except endurance for her future.

The decision enraged her pagan father. As they fought, she asked him

"See that pot lying there? Can you call it by any other name than what it is? Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am -- a Christian."

Immediately her father began to beat her and had her arrested by the Roman authorities. Her arrest came at a terrible time for the Christian church - the persecutions of Emperper Septimius Severus. She was arrested with four others - the slaves Felicity and Revocatus, and the freemen Saturnius and Secundulus, all five being catechumens. Her teacher, Saturus, joined them in their fate and willingly gave himself up to the guards.

Saint Perpetua wrote in her diary of her imprisonment:

“What a day of horror! Terrible heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all, I was tormented with anxiety for my baby…. Such anxieties I suffered for many days, but I obtained leave for my baby to remain in the prison with me, and being relieved of my trouble and anxiety for him, I at once recovered my health, and my prison became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.”

While Saint Perpetua longed for her baby and had to deal with the rough prison guards, Saint Felicity was in a worse spot - she was eight months pregnant. As noted in her journal entry, two of the deacons who were allowed to minister to the prisoners paid off the guards so that the group would be moved to a better, healthier part of the prison that allowed Saint Perpetua's brother and mother to come and visit with her baby. Life was much better seeing her baby and holding him, but the guards were still rough with them.

Mosaic in the Crypt of the National Shrine in Washington DC

Back in her cell, Saint Perpetua began to pray and asked God for a vision. Her request was granted and in the vision she could see a golden ladder reaching all the way into heaven with daggers, hooks and other sharp objects on the sides of the ladder. At the bottom of the ladder was a massive serpent. The serpent does not bite her as she climbs at she reaches a beautiful garden at the top. When the vision ended, she began to understand that she and the others would have to suffer soon.

Soon their trial approached and the Governor Hilarianus almost begged Saint Perpetua to forgo her faith, telling her how great it would be to be back home with her baby in comfort. The judge ruled swiftly - the group would be fed to wild beasts in the arena for being Christian. Two days before the execution, Saint Felicity went into an extremely painful labor. The guards taunted and jeered at her, telling her that if she thought labor was bad the beasts will be unbearable. Saint Felicity replied to them:

"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."

6th Century mosaic from Sant'Apollinare Nuovo Ravenna

The day before the sentence is to be executed, Saint Perpetua had another vision in which she defeated a savage Egyptian that she interpreted as the devil himself. On the day of execution there was a massive feast where the martyrs were brought out in front of the awaiting crowds. It is also on this day that Saturus has a vision himself - he saw himself and Saint Perpetua transported by Angels to the east until they arrived at a beautiful garden. Here they saw four other Christian martyrs that had been burned at the stake just a few months before their arrest. While the crowd began to laugh and make fun of them, the group turned to them and began laughing back at the crowd, telling them they should be Christian as fast as possible and to not wait any longer. The guards had hoped to force them to wear the traditional robes of the pagan gods, but Saint Perpetua told them:

"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."

The group was led into the arena and the men attacked by first a boar, then a bear and finally a leopard. Saints Perpetua and Felicity turned two the Christians in the crowd (including her brother) and said to them:

"Stand fast in the faith, and love one another. Do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you."

The two women were stripped down and thrown against a heifer. Eventually the crowd shouted enough and the two women were given back their clothes and placed in front of two gladiators. They gave each other the kiss of peace and the gladiators descended upon them with swords. The Passion records Saint Perpetua's death:

"But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman's hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain had she not herself so willed it"

Their writing was completed by an eyewitness at the games who wrote:

“Of what was done in the games themselves, let him write who will.”

As early as the fourth century Christians in Africa and abroad were celebrating the feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity on march 7th. When Saint Thomas Aquinas's feast day was inserted on the same day, the celebration of the two martyrs was moved down to a commemoration. This stayed until 1908 when Pope Pius X moved the date to March 6. In 1969, during the revision of the General Roman Calendar, Saint Thomas Aquinas's feast was moved and so the two martyrs had their feast restored to March 7th.

Today their feast day is celebrated on March 7th in the Ordinary Form and March 6th in the Extraordinary Form. The Eastern Orthodox church celebrates their feast day on March 1.

Saints Perpetua and Felicity are considered the Patron Saints of mothers, Expectant Mothers, ranchers and butchers among others.

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