Powerful Reflections From St. Perpetua’s Prison Diary

Gillian Weyant

Powerful Reflections From St. Perpetua’s Prison Diary

The stories of the saints of the Catholic Church have always given consolation, hope, and inspiration to the rest of the Church’s members.  Reading and learning about the saints is immensely helpful in finding concrete examples of holiness.  Holiness is also not something that fades with time: the life of a saint who died nearly two thousand years ago can be just as inspirational and relevant as the life of a saint who died within the past two decades. 

Various stories of saints who lived in different times in history can also provide great insight into the development and history of Christianity: considering the life of an early Christian martyr and then considering the life of a saint of modern times allows us to gain insight about the particular trials and tribulations that Catholics have faced at different times throughout the years.

Martyrdom: Death in the Name of Christ

Saints who are also martyrs show sainthood, holiness, and self-sacrifice to us in especially striking and magnificent ways.  As the early Christian author Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  By this, he meant that although the martyrs endured great pain and suffering in the name of the Church, their lives and their deaths also contained incredible amounts of hope: since they imitated Jesus in His death, they would also imitate Him in His resurrection.  And by their deaths, they planted seeds of hope that were capable of spurring future generations into conversion, holiness, and exemplarity in the name of Christ.

St. Perpetua’s prison diary, one of the oldest and most noteworthy Christian texts of its kind, chronicles the passion and eventual martyrdom of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas and their companions.  This text has been read for centuries and has given hope and inspiration to Catholics everywhere.  St. Perpetua was a married noblewoman who was still nursing her young son just before she was herself martyred at the age of twenty-two.  St. Felicitas was a slave imprisoned with her who gave birth to a daughter in the eighth month of her pregnancy, just before she was led to her death.  Their companions were similarly courageous in proudly asserting their conversions to Christian faith, although it was punishable by death to do so under the reign of Septimius Severus in the third century.

Although the prison diary tells the stories of all those who were martyred that day, St. Perpetua is at the forefront since she herself wrote much of the diary and narrated the course of her own martyrdom.  This diary is extremely unique because of this, since not only is the text approximately 1,800 years old, it is one of the only firsthand accounts of a martyr’s journey to his or her death.  The diary takes us through the entirety of these martyrs’ passions and deaths, from their resolutions to remain strong in the face of death to their torment by beasts and their ultimate deaths by the sword.

“Neither Can I Call Myself Anything Other Than What I Am: A Christian”

If we are living in the United States today, we are facing very different challenges in terms of following the teachings of the Church and remaining faithful to Christianity.  It is likely that very few of us will actually and literally be called to lay down our physical lives for the Church, although in other places in the world that may sadly be more likely.  Among a turbulent political climate in the United States, combined with attacks from all directions on the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage and living according to God’s laws, publicly professing our Christian faith and our willingness to obey God’s laws may seem unusually difficult.  Declaring our love for the Church may cause us to be criticized, ostracized or otherwise viewed in a negative way.

Although this is certainly a different struggle than the one third-century martyrs endured, it is a constant one we face in modern times.  Perpetua, when discussing her impending death with her father, gives us words to live by even in our separate situations.  Perpetua’s father, surely saddened and distraught at the prospect of his young daughter’s death, urged her to forsake her faith for the sake of her own life and the future of her nursing child.  Perpetua refused to heed his plea and pointed to a small pitcher nearby.  In her diary, she chronicles this conversation: “‘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.’”

These simple words ought to settle themselves deeply in our hearts.  “I am a Christian.”  This can be the response when we are faced with any kind of difficulty as we consider how to proceed in the situation: “I am a Christian” declares the most important aspect of our identity and can lead us to rightful action, even though it may be to our earthly disadvantage.

Holy Motherhood: The Examples of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas

For anyone who is a parent, the details of these martyrs’ deaths are especially sorrowful. Throughout the diary, Perpetua mentions her son who was so young that he was still nursing.  During her imprisonment, she was at times separated from her son, which caused her immense pain and anxiety.  She was eventually reunited with her son before her death, and writes: “Such solicitude I suffered for many days, and I obtained for my infant to remain in the dungeon with me; and forthwith 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.”

Felicitas was a mother as well, although her circumstances were much different from Perpetua’s.  Just before her death, she was approximately eight months pregnant, and so gave birth early since the law did not permit the execution of pregnant women.  She left her newborn and courageously went to her death along with Perpetua and their companions.

Any mother will realize that the word “strong” is utterly insufficient to describe the heroism exhibited by Perpetua and Felicitas as they stood by their Christian faith, even though it would mean they had to leave their children.  The pain of being permanently separated from your child is one that all parents hope they will not have to suffer, and so it is an astonishing testament to their love of God and of the Church that Perpetua and Felicitas would trust God to provide for their children after their deaths.

The sacrifices of Perpetua and Felicitas remind parents of the primary purpose of our vocation.  In our marriage vows, we as Catholics promise to bring children up according to the law of Christ and His Church.  By the actions of Perpetua and Felicitas, we are reminded that we must always consider our families first through the lens of the faith, for our parenthood is worth nothing if it is not first holy.

Witness to the Joy of Christianity

A striking detail of Perpetua’s martyrdom is described after she faces a fierce animal in the amphitheater where she died: “Then she was called for again, and bound up her disheveled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory.”  This text, describing such a simple and seemingly unimportant action of Perpetua pulling back her hair, is absolutely worthy of consideration.  One wonders why Perpetua would have considered her appearance at this moment.

The answer lies in the joy with which Perpetua regarded her martyrdom.  She and her companions viewed martyrdom less as leaving the earth and more as finally joining their beloved God and His saints.  For Perpetua, then, finally approaching her martyrdom – which she had seen in visions throughout her imprisonment – was her crowning glory, and so she must have seen her death as something of a wedding to her Bridegroom and chose to witness to the joy of this occasion in any way that she could.

This action of Perpetua’s can help us inform the way in which we suffer.  Many saints and popes have remarked on the importance of joy in the Christian life.  St. Josemaria Escriva writes, “May no one read sadness or sorrow in your face, when you spread in the world around you the sweet aroma of your sacrifice: the children of God should always be sowers of peace and joy.”  As she poured out her blood to plant the seed of the Church, Perpetua also planted seeds of this peace and joy in an immense gesture of holiness.  May we look to her example and understand that, although we may endure suffering in our lives, suffering is our path to the next life and we may hope to bear it with visible peace and dignity.

Uniting Our Lives to Christ

Although we likely will never face the same kind of martyrdom as Sts. Perpetua, Felicitas and their companions, may we look to their example and constantly die to ourselves so that we are able to grow closer to Christ.  By their example, we can hope to recognize the power of suffering and approach it steadfastly as we recognize our growing closer to Christ in our suffering, like these martyrs, who “indeed rejoiced that they should have incurred any one of their Lord’s passions.”  It is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life, and so, like these martyrs, let us say “I am a Christian” and hold true to our faith each day of our life.