This biography was prepared for us by Sister Pamela Pranke.
The young women clung to one another with courage as the wild animal charged them. This story is that of Perpetua and Felicity, companions, Christian heroes and martyrs who faced a violent death rather than deny God by worshiping the Roman Emperor. Their compelling story captured the attention and imagination of Christians for 1800 years as an example of unwavering faith in God while facing torture and death with grace. Perpetua, a Christian noblewoman of Carthage, in North Africa, with an infant at her breast, told us in her own words through a diary she kept while in prison of the friendship with her dear pregnant slave, Felicity, and, fellow catechumens, Revocatus, Saturninus, and Secundulus. This is their enduring story.
In the second century people under Roman rule were required to worship the emperor and the Roman gods. Refusal to do so could result in imprisonment and death. That is exactly what happened to Perpetua and her companions.
Perpetua’s parents were not Christian so they could not understand their daughter’s decision to disregard the Roman law especially since her infant stayed in prison with her. Perpetua’s father pleaded with her to change her mind about Christianity to save her life. This was her response, “‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?’ ‘Yes, I do’, said he. And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’ And he said: ‘No.’ ‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.'”
Perpetua’s outraged father left the prison in a fury, returning several days later desperately pleading with Perpetua to offer a sacrifice to the emperors. Even the governor pleaded with her to do the same. Over the next days, her father continued to plead with Perpetua until he was beaten back by the guards. Still, Perpetua remained faithful to Christianity.
Felicity was 8 months pregnant when the group was imprisoned. Since pregnant women were not allowed to be executed, her date for execution was postponed until after delivery. This caused her great distress since she would not be executed with her companions. The group gathered in supplication to the Lord that Felicity would deliver her baby so they could all die together. Their prayer was answered two days before the scheduled execution when Felicity delivered a baby in the prison.
The small group of Christians was determined to die rejoicing in the Lord with dignity. Their last meal together was a love feast shared with family and friends. The group of Christian companions approached death with faith and celebration of victory knowing that they were in the Lord’s hands.
The day of execution arrived. Perpetua entered the arena singing psalms. The men faced the wild beasts first, after being attacked by a bear, boar, and leopard, they waited for Perpetua and Felicity to face their beast, a wild heifer that was symbolic of their young womanhood.
Perpetua and Felicity, clinging to each other, were stripped, and dragged in a large net into the arena. The crowd, after seeing that Perpetua was a very young woman and that Felicity had just given birth, called for them to be clothed. Perpetua was tossed into the air by the wild heifer that trampled Felicity. Perpetua pulled Felicity up so they could face the wild animal together. Perpetua, concerned with her Christian dignity, covered an exposed thigh and straightened her hair.
The crowd indicated that it was taking too long for the Christians to die, so in compassion, they called for a rapid death. The Christians stood in silence together after sharing a blessed kiss. A gladiator killed each in turn, excluding Perpetua. A soldier thrust a sword at Perpetua and hit bone rather than killing her. Perpetua dramatically reached for the sword guiding it to her neck to aid her executioner.
This narrative became so well-known in the early Church that it was read during liturgies. Even today, Perpetua’s diary is read in church services or their brave story retold.
O God the King of saints, who strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicity and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Further Reading and References
Acts of Christian Martyrs, The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, untitled (ssfp.org) This includes Perpetua’s Diary.
Keifer, J., Perpetua and her companions: Martyrs at Carthage. Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of the past. http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/117.html
Peterson, A.R. (2004). Perpetua: A Bride, a Martyr, a Passion, Relevant Books.
Shewring, W, (2021). The Passion of SS. Perpetua and Felicity, Hassell Street Press.
YouTube has a number of videos about these saints.