I recognized their names from the Roman Canon, but it wasn’t until daily Mass one March 7th that the priest brought Sts. Perpetua and Felicity to life before the eyes of my heart. His words transformed the wooden pews of the church around me into a vision of the prison in Carthage in the year 203. I saw the walls that held these holy young Catechumens before their martyrdoms. How was it, I wondered, that the lives of two women who died over 1,800 years ago feel so profoundly relevant to me?
Here lies what I find to be one of the most beautiful aspects of our Catholic Faith. In the Communion of Saints, nothing—not time in history, location, race, circumstance, wealth, or vocation-—an hold us back from learning and drawing inspiration from those who have fought the good fight before us.
Learning from Sts. Perpetua and Felicity
So what can modern Catholic women learn from two third-century martyrs?
We are called to loyalty to Christ even before loyalty to our loved ones.
Like many of our own families today, Perpetua’s family was divided in their beliefs. Her mother was a Christian, but her father was a pagan. When he pleaded desperately for Perpetua to renounce her newfound Faith, knowing it would put her life in danger, she gracefully responded:
Father…do you see this vessel lying, a pitcher or whatsoever it may be? Can it be called by any other name than that which it is? So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian.
St. Perpetua knew wholeheartedly that her identity was solely in Christ. Her loyalty was to Jesus who saved her, even before loyalty to the father who raised her, provided for her throughout her life, and truly loved her and wanted what he believed to be the best for her.
She wasn’t heartless toward her father. Rather, she repeats again and again in her diary that she grieved for him, knowing that he would not rejoice in her death without the promise of salvation that she rested in so confidently. While not expressly stated in her account, I can only imagine how many hours St. Perpetua spent praying for her father in the final days of her life.Do you see this vessel lying...? Can it be called by any other name than that which it is? So can I call myself nought other than that which I am, a Christian. -St. Perpetual #BISblog // Click To Tweet
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Any situation can be transformed by love.
Few settings sound more dire than the third-century dungeon where Sts. Perpetua and Felicity and their companions spent their final days. It was so packed with people, there was barely room to move. The heat was stifling from the crowd. The guards treated the prisoners cruelly. It was so dark that St. Perpetua claims she “had never known such darkness.” Most of all, though, she was tormented by her separation from her son, a baby or young child who was not yet weaned.
Eventually, St. Perpetua was granted permission to nurse her son, brought to her by her mother and brother. More than the escape from the crowd and the oppressive heat, holding her child is what brought Saint Perpetua relief. She wrote, “…I became well and was lightened of my labor and care for the child; and suddenly the prison was made a palace for me, so that I would sooner be there than anywhere else.”
While we may never experience so drastic a situation as a prison turned to a palace, we can transform the situations in which we feel trapped, discontent, rejected, or alone by focusing on who and how well we love.
We have a responsibility to pray for the souls in Purgatory.
While she was in prison, St. Perpetua had a vision of her brother, Dinocrates, who had died of disease at the age of seven. She saw him pale and discolored, still bearing the ulcers on his face that had led to his death. He was hot and thirsty, but unable to drink from a font of water, which was too high for him to reach. Upon waking, she realized her late brother was in torment and needed her prayers. She prayed faithfully every day, and offered up her sufferings for his sake.
Days later, she had another vision. This time, she saw Dinocrates clean and finely clothed, with only a faint scar on his face where the ulcers had been. The water font was at his waist level and he drank from it heartily using a golden goblet before running off to play.
The poor souls in Purgatory, unable to pray or obtain any merits for themselves any longer, rely on us for our prayers and intercession. It’s far more comforting (tempting, even) to believe that departed souls go straight to Heaven. But denying the reality of Purgatory—and likewise, our responsibility to the souls there—does a great disservice both to them and to us. We can rest assured that the souls we pray for will be only too happy to return the favor and pray for us once they do reach Heaven, as I can only imagine Dinocrates did for his sister.
How we present ourselves to the world matters.
Don’t get me wrong, appearances are far from the most important thing. But, the ways we choose to present ourselves to the world do matter, because our outward appearance is meant to reflect our hearts. Sts. Perpetua and Felicity illustrate this in two ways.
When the day of the games arrived, the executioners tried to dress the prisoners in the outfits of pagan priests and priestesses. St. Perpetua boldly spoke up, refusing to compromise their witness even in these final moments, and the group was permitted to appear as they were.
Moments later, these heroic saints faced the beasts in the arena. A savage cow was set upon Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, and when St. Perpetua’s leg was gored, she fell to the ground. Then, something unexpected happened. According to the witness who completed her diary with an account of their martyrdom, “Next, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her disheveled hair; for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair disheveled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory.”
You read that right. St. Perpetua fixed her hair after being gored by a savage cow.
The author of this account is clear that St. Perpetua’s intention was far from vanity. Rather, she cared about the impression she was giving through every moment of her very public martyrdom. She welcomed the opportunity to die for Christ with gratitude, even joy. By suffering so gracefully, she shared that message with every person who witnessed her torture and death.
We are stronger in community than we are alone.
We don’t know as much about St. Felicity as we do about St. Perpetual. We do know that, when she was taken captive, she was eight months pregnant. The law prohibited the execution of pregnant women. St. Felicity was filled with sorrow by the likelihood that she would not be able to stand with her friends as they faced their impending martyrdoms only to be killed later, amongst people she didn’t know. The group prayed fervently, and sure enough, St. Felicity gave birth to a daughter three days before the games.
There is so much hope within this testimony. In community, we draw the strength and courage we so desperately need to face the evil of the world. We have the opportunity to pray and intercede for each other, knowing that “for where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). And, in some cases, we may even be called to face death together.
So she stood up; and when she saw Felicity smitten down, she went up and gave her her hand and raised her up.
On their feast day today, may Saints Perpetua and Felicity pray for us! To dive more deeply into their testimony, read St. Perpetua’s diary, one of the earliest surviving pieces of writing by a Christian woman, here.What Modern Catholic Women Can Learn from Two Third-Century Martyrs #BISblog // Click To Tweet