Msgr John Broadbent
4 April 2011
I noted in my account of the life of St Valentine in last month’s Wel-com that so many of the first to third century accounts of saints’ martyrdoms were added to in the sixth to eighth centuries by monks with little credibility because of their lack of research materials. Most historians however agree on the authenticity of the Acts of Ss Perpetua and Felicitas which were written by St Perpetua herself.
They were so highly esteemed in the fourth century that they were read in many North African churches instead of the scriptures. St Augustine in the fifth century protested this frequency of replacing the scriptures.
About 203 in Carthage in North Africa under the Roman Emperor Severus, five catechumens were arrested. Perpetua was 22 at the time and suckling her baby while the slave, Felicity, was pregnant. Perpetua’s father, of whom she was the favourite child, was an old man and a pagan. He repeatedly tried to persuade her against becoming a Christian but each time she stood up to him.
In the following days the five were baptised, ‘The Spirit bidding me make no other petition after the rite than for bodily endurance’.
A few days later they were in prison and subject to ‘rough treatment’ from the soldiers. The heat generated by the crowds was ‘terrible’ and Perpetua was ‘tormented with anxiety’ for her baby. ‘Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who ministered to us, paid for us to be removed for a few hours to a better part of the prison…and I suckled my baby, who was faint for want of food’…
Perpetua was then allowed to keep her baby with her.
When her father tried again to change her mind, ‘I comforted him, saying, “It shall happen as God shall choose, for assuredly we be not in our own power but in the power of God”. And he departed full of grief.’
On another occasion they were summoned to the marketplace where a vast crowd had formed.
We were placed on a platform before the judge, who was Hilarion, procurator of the province. The rest who were questioned before me, confessed their faith. When it came to my turn, my father appeared with my baby and, drawing me down from the step, besought me and said, “Have pity on your child”. Hilarion, joined with my father and said, “Spare your father’s white hairs; spare the tender years of your child; offer a sacrifice for the prosperity of the emperors”. I replied “no”.
“Are you a Christian?” asked Hilarion, and I answered, “Yes, I am.”
As my father attempted to draw me from my resolution, Hilarion commanded that he should be beaten off and was struck with a rod. This I felt as much as if I myself had been struck so greatly did I grieve to see my father thus treated in his old age. Then the judge passed sentence on us all and condemned us to the wild beasts and joyfully we returned to our prison.
Perpetua begged her father to return her baby but he refused to send him.
‘And God so ordered it that the child no longer required to suckle, nor did the milk in my breasts distress me.’
An eyewitness continues
The rest of the Acts were added by another hand – apparently that of an eyewitness.
‘Felicitas feared she might not suffer with them, because pregnant women were not allowed to be punished. All joined in prayer on her behalf and she gave birth to a daughter in the prison whom one of their fellow Christians adopted…Puden, their gaoler, “who now believed” did all he could for them.’
The day before the games, they were given the usual last meal, called ‘the free feast’ which was eaten in public but the martyrs strove to make of it an ‘Agape’, a love feast, and to those who crowded around them they spoke of the judgements of God and the joy of their own sufferings. Their courage astonished the pagans and caused the conversion of many.
The day of their triumph, having arrived, the martyrs set forth from the prison as though they were on the way to heaven. Perpetua with Felicitas walked behind the men ‘Rejoicing to come from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism’. At the gates of the amphitheatre, the guards tried to force the Christians to dress in pagan priestly robes. Perpetua led their vehement refusal.
As they were led past the balcony of Heraclius, the men threatened him and the crowd with the judgement of God. Perpetua sang psalms. They were killed by bears, leopards and wild boars. Saturus, one of the martyrs, before being eaten by a leopard, turned to Puden, the supportive gaoler already thinking of becoming a Christian, took his ring from Puden’s finger soaked it in his blood and returned it urging him to be baptised.
Perpetua and Felicitas were exposed to a savage cow. Perpetua was tossed first and fell on her back but got up to help Felicitas and they stood side by side for another attack; but the mob shouted that this was enough and they were led to freedom.
Yet the mob were fickle and, as the prisoners were led back again, they gave each other the kiss of peace. They were killed by the gladiators, Perpetua guiding to her own throat the sword of her nervous executioner who had failed to kill her at the first stroke, so that she shrieked out in pain.
‘Perhaps so great a woman could not else have been slain except she willed out,’ so concluded her scribe.
It is good for us to see how those first martyrs lived and died as we endure our own slower martyrdom as pilgrims to God.