About the Commemoration
No saints are more uniformly honored in all the early calendars and martyrologies than these African martyrs. In 202 the emperor Septimus Severus forbade conversions to Christianity, and harsh persecution ensued. Arrested in Carthage were Vibia Perpetua, a noblewoman from Thuburbo, twenty-two years old; her infant child; Felicity, a pregnant slave; Revocatus, a slave; Saturninus; Secundulus. All were catechumens. Later their catechist, Saturus, was arrested also. While under house arrest, they were baptized.
Perpetua’s father urged her to renounce the faith, but she refused and was imprisoned. In prison she had a vision of a golden ladder guarded by a dragon and sharp weapons that prevented ascent, but nonetheless she walked over the dragon and reached a beautiful place. Her father repeated his plea in vain and repeated it again before the people in the arena.
The steadfast Christians were condemned to be given to wild beasts at a celebration in honor of Caesar Geta. Perpetua had another vision, this time of her seven-year-old brother Dinocrates, who had died of cancer, in heaven. Felicity was not to have been executed with the others since it was illegal to execute a pregnant woman, but three days before the spectacle Felicity gave birth prematurely to a girl, who was adopted by a Christian family, and she gladly joined the others in martyrdom. After being scourged, they were led to the amphitheater, and according to the apparently contemporary account of the martyrdom, they were mangled by the beasts, but survived to be beheaded with a sword.
The record of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity is one of the most ancient reliable histories of the martyrs extant. Part of the Parian is said to haw been written by Perpetua herself as a kind of diary record of her visions, and part by Saturus the catechist. The introduction and the conclusion are by an apparent eyewitness, said by some to have been the church lather Tertullian. The Passion, which recalls the biblical book of Revelation, is an important document in understanding early Christian ideas of martyrdom, providing a vivid insight into the beliefs of the young and vigorous African church. It was enormously popular, and St. Augustine, who quotes it often, has to warn against it being put on the same level as Holy Scripture. Perpetua and her companions were very popular in Carthage, and a basilica was erected over their tomb.
In the Passion, four other martyrs are also mentioned: Jocundus, Saturninus, and Artaxius, all of whom had been burned, and Quintus, who died in prison. In the Roman Church, the commemoration of Perpetua and Felicity had been moved to March 6 to make room for Thomas Aquinas on March 7, but the present Roman calendar, having moved Thomas to January 28, restores the commemoration of Perpetua and Felicity to March 7, and the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Methodist For All the Saints have followed that change.
Excerpts from New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints by Philip H. Pfatteicher, copyright, 2008 by Fortress Press, an imprint of Augsburg Fortress.
See also: Perpetua and Felicity
The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze. With them also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after the childbirth in a second baptism.
They were led up to the gates and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end.
“We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.”
Even injustice recognized injustice. The military tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Perpetua then began to sing a Psalm: she was treading on the head of the Egyptian. Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to warn the onlooking mob. Then when they came within sight of Hilarianus, they suggested by their motions and gestures; “You have condemned us, but God will condemn you” was what they were saying.
At this the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this that they had obtained a share in the Lord’s sufferings. First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair; for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.
Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side.
…[B]ut the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to go, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence without moving, especially Saturus, who being the first to climb the stairway, was the first to die. For once again he was waiting for Perpetua. Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.
Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honors, and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old. For these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendor and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen.
Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, ed. and trans. Herbert Musurillo (1972), 129-31. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.
O God, the King of saints, in whose strength your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions made 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 Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
LFF, rev. PHP
Readings: Psalm 34:1-8 or Psalm 124; Hebrews 10:32-39; Matthew 24:9-14
Hymn of the Day: “Jerusalem the golden” (H82 624, LBW 347, LSB 672)
Prayers: For faithfulness; For confidence in God’s care; For courage to confess Christ; For strength to support those who suffer.
Preface: A Saint (3) (BCP) or, if after Ash Wednesday, Lent