FEAST OF SAINTS PERPETUA AND FELICITY, MARTYRS
FEAST DAY – 7th MARCH
Perpetua and Felicity (Latin: Perpetua et Felicitas) were Christian martyrs of the 3rd century.(Late Second Century – 203 A.D). Vibia Perpetua was a recently married well educated noblewoman, said to have been 22 years old at the time of her death, and mother of an infant she was nursing. Felicity, a slave imprisoned with her and pregnant at the time, was martyred with her. They were put to death at Carthage in the Roman province of Africa.
Centuries ago, in the desert lands of North Africa, there was once a thriving Catholic Church. Dioceses, bishops, theologians, shrines, cemeteries, schools, monasteries, convents, and saints filled the towns hugging the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This vibrant Catholicism gave birth to, and was inspired by, the witness of numerous martyrs.
Many of their names are known, among them today’s saints, Felicity and Perpetua. Few documents in Church history can match the raw power of the first person, eye-witness account of the assassination of Perpetua and Felicity. It is a gripping narrative filled with breathtaking dramatic detail. The reader can almost feel the hot sand of the arena warming the feet, a gentle sea breeze caressing the cheeks, and the sweaty crowd, their roar for bloodlust echoing through the dry air.
The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity narrates their death. According to the narrative, a slave named Revocatus, his fellow slave Felicitas, the two free men Saturninus and Secundulus, and Perpetua, who were catechumens – that is, Christians being instructed in the faith but not yet baptized – were arrested and executed at the military games in celebration of the Emperor Septimius Severus’ birthday. To this group was added a man named Saturus, who voluntarily went before the magistrate proclaiming to be a Christian. Perpetua’s first person narrative was published posthumously as part of the Passion.
Perpetua was imprisoned in Carthage in the days leading up to her martyrdom. She described these days and all that she endured in her diary, the physical and emotional torments that she suffered in the prison leading up to her martyrdom. Perpetua suffered physically due to the heat, rough prison guards, and the cessation of regular breastfeeding. Perpetua also described how the prison conditions improved after she and other martyrs were moved to another part of the prison. Her physical torment was also eased after she was able to breastfeed her child. Perpetua described her bodily ailments in detail.
Her child would be raised by Christian women in Carthage. Perpetua, in her own hand, recorded the events leading up to her martyrdom, while an eye-witness to her death completed the text later. When they were first thrown into the arena, Perpetua and Felicity were attacked by a rabid heifer, which was chosen because it shared the same sex as its victims. The young women were grievously injured by the mad cow and then momentarily removed from the arena until gladiators were brought in to conclude the day’s spectacle.
The executioners carried out their duties quickly, though Perpetua had to guide the gladiator’s sword to her throat after he first painfully struck a bone instead of a vein. As the narration states, “Perhaps such a woman…could not die unless she herself had willed it.” Perpetua and Felicity were imprisoned together, suffered together, and died together in 203 A.D. in Carthage, North Africa, along with other noble martyrs whose names are preserved in the same account.
The vivid description of their deaths was so moving that it was faithfully preserved down through the centuries and has come to us largely intact. Apart from the New Testament writings themselves, only a few documents from the early Church pre-date the passion narrative of Perpetua and Felicity. The Church in North Africa so often read the account of Perpetua and Felicity in its public liturgies that Saint Augustine, a North African bishop living two hundred years after their martyrdoms, had to remind his faithful that the narrative was not on a par with Scripture itself.
In Carthage a basilica was afterwards erected over the tomb of the martyrs, the Basilica Maiorum, where an ancient inscription bearing the names of Perpetua and Felicitas has been found. Saints Felicitas and Perpetua are among the martyrs commemorated by name in the Roman Canon of the Mass.
The feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, 7 March, was celebrated even outside Africa and is entered in the Philocalian Calendar, the 4th-century calendar of martyrs venerated publicly at Rome. When Saint Thomas Aquinas’ feast was inserted into the Roman calendar, for celebration on the same day, the two African saints were thenceforth only commemorated.
This was the situation in the Tridentine Calendar established by Pope Pius V, and remained so until the year 1908, when Pope Pius X brought the date for celebrating them forward to 6 March. In the 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas was moved, and that of Saints Perpetua and Felicity was restored to their traditional 7 March date.
Other Churches, including the Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church, commemorate these two martyrs on 7 March, never having altered the date to 6 March. The Anglican Church of Canada, however, historically commemorated them on 6 March (The Book of Common Prayer, 1962), but have since changed to the traditional 7 March date (Book of Alternative Services, 1985).
Perpetua is the patron of cattle, death of children, and martyrs, and Felicity is patron of death of children, martyrs, sterility, to have male children and widows. Symbols used for St. Perpetua are the wild cow, spiked ladder guarded by a dragon and for St. Felicity, symbols used are seven swords, a cauldron of oil and sword, sword with seven heads and eight palms.
O God, at the urging of whose love the Martyrs Saints Perpetua and Felicity defied their persecutors and overcame the torment of earth, grant, we ask, by their prayers, that we may ever grow in your love.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Saints Perpetua and Felicity, pray for us.