Early in the third century, the emperor Septimius Severus decreed that all persons should sacrifice to the divinity of the emperor. There was no way that a Christian, confessing faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ, could do this. Vibia Perpetua was a young widow, mother of an infant and owner of several slaves, including Felicitas and Revocatus. With two other young Carthaginians, Secundulus and Saturninus, they were catechumens preparing for baptism. Perpetua and her companions were arrested and held in prison under miserable conditions. They received baptism during their imprisonment. Felicitas, pregnant when arrested, bore her child in prison.
In a document attributed to Perpetua, we learn of visions she had in prison. One was of a ladder to heaven, which she climbed to reach a large garden; another was of her brother who had died when young of a dreadful disease, but was now well and drinking the water of life; that last was of herself as a warrior battling the Devil and defeating him to win entrance to the gate of life. “And I awoke, understanding that I should fight, not with beasts, but with the Devil…So much about me up to the day before the games; let him who will write of what happened then.” At the public hearing before the proconsul, she refused even the entreaties of her aged father, saying, “I am a Christian.”
Perpetua and her companions were martyred for their faith in Christ in the year 202 or 203 on March 7.
From a contemporary account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and her companions at Carthage
If ancient examples of faith, which testify to the grace of God and give us encouragement, are honored and recorded for posterity in writing, so that by reading them the deeds of God are glorified and others are strengthened, why should we not in our generation also set down new witnesses which serve these ends. One day their example will also be ancient and important to our children, if at this present time, because of the reverence we accord to antiquity, they seem less weighty to us.
When the day of their victory dawned, the martyrs marched from the prison to the amphitheater, their faces joyful yet dignified, as if they were on their way to heaven. If they trembled at all, it was for joy, not fear. Perpetua took up the rear of the procession. She looked noble, a true wife of Christ and beloved of God, her piercing gaze causing spectators to avert their eyes. With them also went Felicitas, rejoicing that her baby had been born safely that she might now fight with beasts, one flow of blood to be succeeded b another, ready to exchange her midwife for a gladiator that she might undergo the labor of a second baptism.
The women were stripped naked, placed in nets and were brought into the arena to face a mad heifer. Even the crowd was horrified seeing in one net a delicate young girl, and in the other a woman, fresh from childbirth, her full breasts still dripping with milk. So the women were recalled and dressed in loose clothing. Perpetua was thrown to the animal first, falling on her back. She stood up and saw that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground. She went and gave her her hand to help her up; and so they stood, side by side.
Now the cruelty of the mob had been appeased, for they were recalled to the Gate of Life. There Perpetua was supported by a certain Rusticus, a catechumen at the time, who was keeping close to her. She called her brother to her and the catechumen, and spoke to them both saying: “Stand firm in your faith, and love one another. Do not let our suffering be a stumbling block to you.”
As the show was ending, her brother was thrown to a leopard, and with one bite was so drenched with blood that as he came back the crowd shouted out (in witness to his second baptism) “Well washed! Well washed!” Indeed he was saved who had been washed in this way. Then be became unconscious, and was thrown with the rest into the place where they have their throats cut.
But the mob demanded that the Christians be brought back into the open so that they could watch the sword being plunged into their bodies, and so be party to the spectacle of their murder. The martyrs rose unbidden to where the mob wanted them, after first kissing one another, that they might seal their martyrdom with the kiss of peace. Each received the sword without resistance and in silence. Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she herself had to guide the fumbling hand of the novice gladiator to her throat. Perhaps so great a women who was feared by the unclean spirit, could not otherwise be killed, unless she herself gave her consent.
O most courageous and blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord! All you who seek to magnify, honor, and adore the glory of Christ, should read the story of these new witnesses, who no less than the ancient witnesses, have been raised up for the Church’s edification; for these new manifestations of virtue testify that the same Holy Spirit is working among us now.
taken from Lesser Feasts and Fasts
and from Celebrating the Saints
O God the King of saints, you strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make 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, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Perpetua and her Companions, Martyrs at Carthage, are published on the Lectionary Page website.