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“Mary and Child with Saints Felicity and Perpetua” (“Sacra Conversazione”), tempera on wood, created before 1520 by an unknown author of greater Poland. The painting is now in the National Museum in Warsaw. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Saints of the month: Ss. Felicity and Perpetua, and solidarity in martyrdom

On March 7 we remember the lives of Ss. Perpetua and Felicity and companions, martyrs of the church.

In Carthage (present-day Tunisia) in the year 203 A.D., a persecution of Christians erupted at the behest of Emperor Severus.  Five catechumens were arrested. A catechumen is someone the church accepts to prepare for baptism.  They were Revocatus, Saturninus, Secundulus, Felicity and Vivia Perpetua. A sixth, Saturus, would turn himself in out of solidarity.

Felicity was a slave, pregnant and close to her due date when she was arrested. Perpetua was 22 years old, the daughter of well-regarded parents, the wife of a nobleman and also a nursing mother. It is believed that Perpetua’s own mother was already a Christian and that one of her three brothers was also a catechumen. When she and her companions were arrested, she began to make an account of her time in jail, an account we still have to this day.

She recalls the horror, darkness and heat of prison. She notes the kindness of two deacons, Tertius and Pomponius, who paid the Roman guards so that their friends could move to a better part of the prison and so that Perpetua could nurse her baby. She also wrote about a vision that predicted their martyrdom.

According to Perpetua’s account, the companions were ordered by the procurator Hilarian to make sacrifice to the emperor at a public trial. Perpetua’s father even came with her baby and pled for her to reject Christ. She and the others maintained their faith in Jesus. Perpetua tells us that Felicity eventually had her baby in prison, and it was adopted by a Christian couple in the community. But the account ends a few days before their end. A fellow Christian finished it.

Perpetua and Felicity were attacked by a savage cow and thrown to the ground. Perpetua made it a point, after having been thrown, to get up, shake the dust from her clothes and fix her hair because, as she said out loud, she did not want Our Lord to think she was sad about her death. When the cow failed to kill them, the two women were taken to gladiators who killed them with swords.  

Though there were several martyrs that day, we remember Perpetua and Felicity especially. Both demonstrated to us the solidarity of all Christians regardless of station. They show us true courage, and they remind us how we ought to behave when defending our own faith. We pray, then, that these two sisters in the Spirit can help us unite in Jesus, regardless of our backgrounds, and help us to make disciples by allowing our neighbors to encounter Jesus in us. 

For more information on Ss. Perpetua and Felicity, Father Alban Butler’s “Lives of the Saints: Volume I” is an excellent resource. “The Story of Saint Perpetua,” produced by Catholic Heroes of the Faith, is a wonderful animated telling of their story appropriate for children.

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