SAINTS PERPETUA, FELICITAS, AND COMPANIONS— MARTYRS—203
Feast: March 6
The record of the <Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions> is one of the great treasures of martyr literature, an authentic document preserved for us in the actual words of the martyrs and their friends. It was in the great African city of Carthage, in the year 203, during the persecutions ordered by the Emperor Severus,[1] that five catechumens[2] were arrested for their faith. The group consisted of a slave Revocatus, his fellow slave Felicitas, who was expecting the birth of a child, two free men, Saturninus and Secundulus, and a matron of twenty-two, Vivia Perpetua, wife of a man in good position and mother of a small infant. Perpetua's father was a pagan, her mother and two brothers Christians, one of the brothers being a catechumen. These five prisoners were soon joined by one Saturus, who seems to have been their instructor in the faith and who now chose to share their punishment. At first they were all kept under strong guard in a private house. Perpetua wrote a vivid account of what happened.

"While I was still with my companions, and my father in his affection for me was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and so weaken my faith, 'Father,' said I, 'do you see this vessel—water pot or whatever it may be? . . . Can it be called by any other name than what it is?" No,' he replied. 'So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am—a Christian.' Then my father, provoked by the word 'Christian,' threw himself on me as if he would pluck out my eyes, but he only shook me, and in fact was vanquished.... Then I thanked God for the relief of being, for a few days, parted from my father . . . and during those few days we were baptized. The Holy Spirit bade me after the holy rite to pray for nothing but bodily endurance.

"A few days later we were lodged in the prison, and I was much frightened, because I had never known such darkness. 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. But Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who ministered to us, paid for us to be moved for a few hours to a better part of the prison and we obtained some relief. All went out of the prison and we were left to ourselves. My baby was brought and I nursed him, for already he was faint for want of food. I spoke anxiously to my mother on his behalf and encouraged my brother and commended my son to their care. For I was concerned when I saw their concern for me. For many days I suffered such anxieties, but I obtained leave for my child to remain in the prison with me, and when relieved of my trouble and distress for him, I quickly recovered my health. My prison suddenly became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.

"My brother then said to me: 'Lady sister, you are now greatly honored, so greatly that you may well pray for a vision to show you whether suffering or release is in store for you.' And I, knowing myself to have speech of the Lord for whose sake I was suffering, promised him confidently, 'Tomorrow I will bring you word.' And I prayed and this was shown me. I saw a golden ladder of wonderful length reaching up to heaven, but so narrow that only one at a time could ascend; and to the sides of the ladder were fastened all kinds of iron weapons. There were swords, lances, hooks, daggers, so that if anyone climbed up carelessly or without looking upwards, he was mangled and his flesh caught on the weapons. And at the foot of the ladder was a huge dragon which lay in wait for those going up and sought to frighten them from the ascent. The first to go up was Saturus, who of his own accord had given himself up for our sakes, because our faith was of his building and he was not with us when we were arrested. He reached the top of the ladder and, turning, said to me: 'Perpetua, I wait for you, but take care that the dragon does not bite you.' And I said: 'In the name of Jesus Christ, he will not hurt me.' And the dragon put out his head gently, as if afraid of me, just at the foot of the ladder; and as though I were treading on the first step, I trod on his head. And I went up and saw a vast garden, and sitting in the midst a tall man with white hair in the dress of a shepherd, milking sheep; and round about were many thousands clad in white. He raised his head and looked at me and said: 'Thou art well come, my child.' And he called me and gave me some curds of the milk he was milking, and I received them in my joined hands and ate, and all that were round about said 'Amen.' At the sound of the word I awoke, still tasting something sweet. I at once told my brother and we understood that we must suffer, and henceforth began to have no hope in this world.

"After a few days there was a report that we were to be examined. My father arrived from the city, worn with anxiety, and came up the hill hoping still to weaken my resolution. 'Daughter,' he said, 'pity my white hairs! Pity your father, if I deserve you should call me father, if I have brought you up to this your prime of life, if I have loved you more than your brothers! Make me not a reproach to mankind! Look on your mother and your mother's sister, look on your son who cannot live after you are gone. Forget your pride; do not make us all wretched! None of us will ever speak freely again if calamity strikes you.' So spoke my father in his love for me, kissing my hands and casting himself at my feet, and with tears calling me by the title not of 'daughter' but of 'lady.' And I grieved for my father's sake, because he alone of all my kindred would not have joy at my martyrdom. And I tried to comfort him, saying, 'What takes place on that platform will be as God shall choose, for assuredly we are not in our own power but in the power of God.' But he departed full of grief.

"The following day, while we were at our dinner, we were suddenly summoned to be examined and went to the forum. The news of the trial spread fast and brought a huge crowd together in the forum. We were placed on a sort of platform before the judge, who was Hilarion, procurator of the province, since the proconsul had lately died. The others were questioned before me and confessed their faith. But when it came to my turn, my father appeared with my child, and drawing me down the steps besought me, 'Have pity on the child.' The judge Hilarion joined with my father and said: 'Spare your father's white hairs. Spare the tender years of your child. Offer sacrifice for the prosperity of the emperors.' I replied, 'No." Are you a Christian?' asked Hilarion, and I answered, 'Yes, I am.' My father then attempted to drag me down from the platform, at which Hilarion commanded that he should be beaten off, and he was struck with a rod. I felt this as much as if I myself had been struck, so deeply did I grieve to see my father treated thus in his old age. The judge then passed sentence on us all and condemned us to the wild beasts, and in great joy we returned to our prison. Then, as my baby was accustomed to the breast, I sent Pomponius the deacon to ask him of my father, who, however, refused to send him. And God so ordered it that the child no longer needed to nurse, nor did my milk incommode me."

Secundulus seems to have died in prison before the examination. Before pronouncing sentence, Hilarion had Saturus, Saturninus, and Revocatus scourged and Perpetua and Felicitas beaten on the face. They were then kept for the gladiatorial shows which were to be given for the soldiers on the festival of Geta, the young prince whom his father Severus had made Caesar four years previously.

While in prison both Perpetua and Saturus had visions which they described in writing in great detail.

The remainder of the story was added by another hand, apparently that of an eyewitness. Felicitas had feared that she might not be allowed to suffer with the rest because pregnant women were not sent into the arena. However, she gave birth in the prison to a daughter whom one of their fellow Christians at once adopted. Pudens, their jailer, was by this time a convert, and did all he could for them. The day before the games they were given the usual last meal, which was called "the free banquet." The martyrs strove to make it an <Agape> or Love Feast,[3] and to those who crowded around them they spoke of the judgments of God and of their own joy in their sufferings. Such calm courage and confidence astonished the pagans and brought about many conversions.

On the day of their martyrdom they set forth from the prison. Behind the men walked the young noblewoman Perpetua, "abashing the gaze of all with the high spirit in her eyes," and beside her the slave Felicitas. At the gates of the amphitheater the attendants tried to force the men to put on the robes of the priests of Saturn and the women the dress symbolic of the goddess Ceres, but they all resisted and the officer allowed them to enter the arena clad as they were. Perpetua was singing, while Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus were calling out warnings to the bystanders and even to Hilarion himself, as they walked beneath his balcony, of the coming vengeance of God. The mob cried out that they should be scourged for their boldness. Accordingly, as the martyrs passed in front of the <venatores>, or hunters, each received a lash.

To each one God granted the form of martyrdom he desired. Saturus had hoped to be exposed to several sorts of beasts, that his sufferings might be intensified. He and Revocatus were first attacked half-heartedly by a leopard. Saturus was next exposed to a wild boar which turned on his keeper instead. He was then tied up on the bridge in front of a bear, but the animal refused to stir out of his den, and Saturus was reserved for one more encounter. The delay gave him an opportunity to turn and speak to the converted jailer Pudens: "You see that what I desired and foretold has come to pass. Not a beast has touched me! So believe steadfastly in Christ. And see now, I go forth yonder and with one bite from a leopard all will be over." As he had foretold, a leopard was now let out, sprang upon him, and in a moment he was fatally wounded. Seeing the flow of blood, the cruel mob cried out, "He is well baptized now!" Dying, Saturus said to Pudens, "Farewell; remember my faith and me, and let these things not daunt but strengthen you." He then asked for a ring from Pudens' finger, and dipping it in his own blood, returned it to the jailer as a keepsake. Then he expired.

Perpetua and Felicitas were exposed to a mad heifer. Perpetua was tossed first and fell on her back, but raised herself and gathered her torn tunic modestly about her; then, after fastening up her hair, lest she look as if she were in mourning, she rose and went to help Felicitas, who had been badly hurt by the animal. Side by side they stood, expecting another assault, but the sated audience cried out that it was enough. They were therefore led to the gate Sanevivaria, where victims who had not been killed in the arena were dispatched by gladiators. Here Perpetua seemed to arouse herself from an ecstasy and could not believe that she had already been exposed to a mad heifer until she saw the marks of her injuries. She then called out to her brother and to the catechumen: "Stand fast in the faith, and love one another. Do not let our sufferings be a stumbling block to you." By this time the fickle populace was clamoring for the women to come back into the open. This they did willingly, and after giving each other the kiss of peace, they were killed by the gladiators. Perpetua had to guide the sword of the nervous executioner to her throat. The story of these martyrs has been given in detail for it is typical of so many others. No saints were more universally honored in all the early Church calendars and martyrologies. Their names appear not only in the Philocalian Calendar[4] of Rome, but also in the Syriac Calendar. The names of Felicitas and Perpetua occur in the prayer "Nobis quoque peccatoribus" in the Canon of the Mass. In the fourth century their <Acts> were publicly read in the churches of Africa and were so highly esteemed that Augustine, bishop of Hippo, found it necessary to protest against their being placed on a level with the Scriptures.


Endnotes:

1 Severus was a Roman general whose bold military exploits led him to be proclaimed emperor by the army after the death of the licentious Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius.

2 A catechumen is the term for a person under instruction preparatory to being received into the Church but as yet not baptized.

3 Agape is the Greek word for brotherly love. It was used to denote one type of early Christian assembly, which included the eating of food together, as well as prayer, singing of psalms, and often the celebration of the Eucharist.

4 The Philocalian Calendar, compiled by one Philocalus in the year 354, was the earliest known list of the feasts of martyrs observed by the Roman Church; the Syriac Calendar was drawn up at Antioch towards the end of the fourth century.


This was taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.


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