Perpetua and Felicitas – Faith Above Family
Verse: Joel 2:28-29
Quote: “And we therefore, what we have heard and handled, declare also to you, brethren and little children, that as well you . . . may be reminded of them again to the glory of the Lord, as that you who know them by report may have communion with the blessed martyrs, and through them with the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and honour, for ever and ever. Amen.”
(The Passion of the Holy Martyrs: Perpetua and Felicitas)
The year is 202. Emperor Septimus Severus issues a decree against conversion to Judaism or Christianity. All new converts in North Africa will be executed unless they publicly perform a sacrifice to him. Perpetua, her servant girl Felicitas, and three men who had not yet completed catechism could make a sacrifice to honor the head of state. But they refuse. They know there is a price to pay for professing Christ, rather than the emperor, as Lord. Dying a martyr’s death is considered a glorious entry into heaven, but dealing with family members is pure anguish. Perpetua’s husband, who is not mentioned in the account, had perhaps died or abandoned her due to her newfound faith. The painful testimony below begins after she and Felicitas and the men are confined to prison:
A few days after, the report went abroad that we were to be tried. Also my father returned from the city spent with weariness; and he came up to me to cast down my faith saying: “Have pity, daughter, on my grey hairs; have pity on your father, if I am worthy to be called father by you; if with these hands I have brought you unto this flower of youth and I have preferred you before all your brothers; give me not over to the reproach of men. Look upon your brothers; look upon your mother and mother’s sister; look upon your son, who will not endure to live after you. Give up your resolution; do not destroy us all together.”
Soon after, when a report goes out that this indeed is the execution day, Perpetua’s father returns, this time bringing her infant son. “Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child,” he pleads. Then he steps forward to forcibly prevent her from laying down her life. At this point an officer begins beating the old man. The execution having been delayed, Perpetua begs to breastfeed her baby one more time.
In the meantime, Felicitas, now eight months pregnant, fears that the execution of Christians in the arena (by wild animals) might be carried out without her, for Roman law prohibits a pregnant woman from being put to death. Here she has a perfect opportunity to escape punishment—at least for a time—but she pleads with God to bring on labor pains. “After their prayer her pains came upon her,” writes an observer. “So she was delivered of a daughter, whom a sister reared up to be her own daughter.”
On the day of execution, before they are led to the arena, the five prisoners are baptized. That Perpetua might have been spared due to her social class and gender is false hope for her aging father. Together, she and Felicitas enter the arena.
But for the women the devil had made ready a most savage cow, prepared for this purpose against all custom; for even in this beast he would mock their sex. They were stripped. . . . The people shuddered, seeing one a tender girl, the other her breasts yet dropping from her late childbearing.
The men were brought into the arena first to be killed by wild animals—a bear, a leopard, and a boar. This spectacle is typically a real crowd-pleaser. But the gory torture of young women turns the frenzied spectators from cheering to jeering. They begin shouting, “Enough!” Perpetua is then taken to the gladiator to be beheaded. Whether due to hesitancy or to lack of skill, the first slash of his sword is not sufficiently severe. She cries out in pain, takes the gladiator’s trembling hand, directs the sword to her neck, and it is over.
After this wave of persecution, there follows a half-century of relative peace. But such faith as seen in the arena that day was a testimony that sparks faith in others. Today Perpetua and Felicitas are commemorated as saints by Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans.