Felicity and Perpetua: What Their Martyrdom Teaches Us About Motherhood and the Faith
Saints Felicity and Perpetua are listed in the Roman canon in the Mass so they have clearly been held in high esteem by the Church for many centuries. These two women were martyred together and they also had something else in common: they were young mothers. Not only were they martyred together but they died willingly with great courage for their faith. They died together with some fellow condemned Christians during some Roman “games” (read: Roman guards let loose frenzied animals and then finally slaughter those who survive the animals) in Carthage on March 7, 203. Perpetua was a noble woman, liberally educated. Felicity was a servant. Neither one of them was older than 22. They were not even baptized before they were imprisoned - they and their fellow martyrs were only catechumens. They received their sacraments while in prison as they awaited their execution. During the games themselves, with the grace of God, they exhibited great fortitude and dignity. We have the account of the days before their execution from Perpetua’s own words, finished and handed down by a fellow Christian who witnessed the slaughter of his friends. You can read the text in its entirety on New Advent. In a time when mothers are constantly bombarded with conflicting messages about motherhood, femininity, and child-rearing, we have a lot to learn from these brave and faithful women.
Faith Above Family
Perpetua recounts how grieved her family was by her imprisonment, particularly her father. He comes to the prison multiple times trying to convince her to change her mind, offer up a little incense to the gods, and come back home. She describes him as passionate and anguished before her, but she stands firm in her faith.
'Father,' said I, 'do you see, let us say, this vessel lying here to be a little pitcher, or something else?' And he said, 'I see it to be so.' And I replied to him, 'Can it be called by any other name than what it is?' And he said, 'No.' 'Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.'
She cannot be anything other than what she is: a follower of Christ. She places that title above her role as wife and daughter, and even above her very important role as mother. Perpetua was grieved by her child, who was still nursing when she entered prison. After some time, she was able to keep her little boy with her in the prison and nurse him, which relieved her anxiety and she was able to accept her surroundings as long as she could tend to her child.
I obtained for my infant to remain in the dungeon with me; and immediately I grew strong and was relieved from distress and anxiety about my infant; and the dungeon became to me as it were a palace, so that I preferred being there to being elsewhere.
As the time drew near for their execution, Perpetua’s son miraculously stopped nursing and she was able to return him to her family without concern for his well being.
And even as God willed it, the child no longer desired the breast, nor did my breast cause me uneasiness, lest I should be tormented by care for my babe and by the pain of my breasts at once.
Her willingness to part with her child for the sake of God’s will reminds me of the resignation of St. Zelie Martin, who was dying of breast cancer. She was particularly concerned about her daughter, Leonie, whom she had recently discovered had been the recipient of abuse. She resigned herself to death if it was in death that she could be of more use to Leonie by her prayers than she could be on earth. Though this sentiment is not directly expressed by Perpetua, there is the sense that a mother would only willingly go to her death if she trusts that her child will be cared for after she is gone.
Felicity likewise was willing to put her faith above her child. While in prison, she was 8 months pregnant. She was grieved by the thought of not being put to death with those friends she had been arrested with because pregnant women were not allowed to be publicly punished. Three days before the execution, the friends prayed to God and their prayer was answered - Felicity went into labor. In her labor pains she cried aloud and was asked what she would do when her martyrdom came upon her and she replied with great fervor,
Now it is I that suffer what I suffer; but then there will be another in me, who will suffer for me, because I also am about to suffer for Him.
She brought forth a baby girl, who was given to a sister to raise. As a woman who has given birth twice now, I cannot imagine handing away my newborn and walking into an arena to die a brutal death with joy yet this is how Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions are described:
The day of their victory shone forth, and they proceeded from the prison into the amphitheatre, as if to an assembly, joyous and of brilliant countenances; if perchance shrinking, it was with joy, and not with fear. Perpetua followed with placid look, and with step and gait as a matron of Christ, beloved of God; casting down the luster of her eyes from the gaze of all. Moreover, Felicitas, rejoicing that she had safely brought forth, so that she might fight with the wild beasts; from the blood and from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after childbirth with a second baptism.
From the midwife to the gladiator - these words are truly stunning to contemplate. Felicity and Perpetua were willing to abandon their natural bonds of motherhood and trust completely in the will of God. They died for him, not sorrowing for what they left behind, but joyfully looking forward to their eternal reward.
Dignity in Suffering
The account of their martyrdom goes on to recount the horrific suffering that these brave Christians endured. First, they were tortured with feral animals. The women were particularly attacked by a mad cow as a torture particular to their sex. In the midst of these sufferings, the Christians remained steadfast. No words describe panic or indicators of apostasy. Instead, the narrator describes how Perpetua and Felicity suffer with great dignity, recognizing in their trials that it is their glory and honor to suffer such wounds for Christ.
The populace shuddered as they saw one young woman of delicate frame, and another with breasts still dropping from her recent childbirth. So, being recalled, they are unbound. Perpetua is first led in. She was tossed, and fell on her loins; and when she saw her tunic torn from her side, she drew it over her as a veil for her middle, rather mindful of her modesty than her suffering. Then she was called for again, and bound up her dishevelled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory. So she rose up; and when she saw Felicitas crushed, she approached and gave her her hand, and lifted her up.
Perpetua is more concerned with modesty and looking prepared to meet her end with dignity rather than concerned for her wounds. Rather than looking to her own suffering, she offers Felicity her hand. Their suffering is not devoid of meaning. It takes on a new character when wounds are suffered for the sake of Our Lord. The martyrs, having survived the horrid animal attacks, are put to death by the sword. Before this, they exchange the kiss of peace, reminiscent of that sign of filial affection shared at the Mass. They spur each other on for the last blow that will send them on to their eternal reward.
Gift of Self
Our culture today is self-obsessed. Women in particular are bombarded with messages of prioritizing self and always seeking some form of “self-care.” While it is true that you cannot “pour from an empty cup” it is also always the case that giving of yourself to others always requires sacrifice. The gift of self is much more necessary than the overemphasis on self-care. Taking care of yourself in the basic ways is actually already implied by the great commandment to Love your neighbor as yourself. We are not commanded by Christ to obsess over caring for ourselves, but rather the opposite - he tells us not to have anxiety for ourselves and instead shifts the focus to caring for those around us. Mothers in particular have a very natural connection to the gift of self - growing a child in the womb, nursing a baby at the breast, and there never seem to be enough arms to hold those who need holding.
Felicity and Perpetua give us an amazing example of not only how we can give of ourselves in the natural order, but also how to give of ourselves in the super-natural order. They gave themselves entirely for Christ. It seemed foolish in the eyes of the world. Why would they want to die for the sake of a man who claimed to be God? Yet they gave of themselves joyfully. We are called to give of ourselves in the super-natural order. It may not be by physical martyrdom. But we are constantly given opportunities to die to self throughout the day: receiving backlash or persecution for religious convictions, accepting situations beyond our control with resignation and joy that they are being allowed by the will of God, treating our families with kindness and patience even if we feel at the end of our rope, continuing to do the repetitive tasks at home or at work with solicitude rather than resentment. There are so many ways, big and small, that we can and we ought to die to self for the sake of Christ. Everything that we offer him in good faith is received as a token of love to the one who loved us unto death. May we love him and suffer for him until the day that he calls us to our eternal reward. Sts. Felicity and Perpetua, pray for us!