Autobiographies provide a wonderful “inside” story that mere biographies cannot match. Diaries offer the reader not just the external facts but also the thoughts and feelings of the writer. Eye witness reports give more detailed information than can be gathered later by someone who was not there.
We are blessed in the Church to have the words, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of numerous saints to aid us in our journeys toward Heaven. Among the most dramatic of such accounts is that of St. Perpetua, who with her servant Felicitas and a number of other companions was martyred in the city of Carthage in the year 203.
Perpetua was a 22-year-old with a new-born infant. Her slave, Felicitas, was eight months pregnant. They and their companions were catechumens preparing to be baptized when the Emperor Severus began a violent persecution against Christians, ordering that there be no more conversions to this “subversive” religion. Even when the persecution reached Carthage the friends were unwavering in their desire to be united with Christ in His Church.
Despite being the wife and daughter of prominent Carthage citizens, Perpetua was arrested and imprisoned in a private house, there to await a hearing before the Procurator of the province. Here the young mother began to keep an account of the events which followed and the internal struggles she endured.
Following our Lord’s admonition that “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me” and “he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of Me” [Matt. 10:37] was the first great challenge for Perpetua. Her father, who was still a pagan, tried everything in his power – from begging to beating – to convince her to do the thing that would save her life: renounce Christ. But she would not relent.
The prisoners received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism during this time and were shortly thereafter transferred to a common prison. The place was dark and hot and the prisoners were ill-treated by the soldiers on guard. But deacons from the church were able to minister to the Christian inmates by bribing the soldiers and they brought Perpetua’s son to her for nursing.
Perpetua’s father continued in his attempts to rescue her. According to her account, “…my father came from the city to the prison, overwhelmed with grief. ‘Daughter,’ said he, ‘have pity on my grey hairs, have compassion on your father…make me not a reproach to mankind. Have respect for your mother and your aunt; have compassion on your child that cannot survive you; lay aside this resolution, this obstinacy, lest you ruin us all…’ He took me by the hands at the same time and kissed them; he threw himself at my feet in tears… I confess, I was pierced with sharp sorrow when I considered that my father was the only person of our family that would not rejoice at my martyrdom. I endeavored to comfort him, saying, ‘Father, grieve not; nothing will happen but what pleases God; for we are not at our own disposal.’ He then departed very much concerned.”
The prisoners were brought before Hilarion, the Procurator to be interrogated. Among those in the crowd of people who came to watch was Perpetua’s father, who appeared with her baby in his arms as she was being questioned in a last effort to change her mind. But each of the prisoners answered clearly “Yes” to the question of whether they were Christians and the sentence was pronounced: death by exposure to wild beasts.
The companions now had to face the challenge of fear in the face of violent, painful death. Perpetua was given the gift of visions to aid in overcoming this fear and as an inspiration to the others. She had vivid dreams of those who had already received the crown of martyrdom and she was led through a “preview” of the coming battle in the arena in which she was victorious over her foes. One of the other companions, Saturus, also had a vision in which angels led the friends to a beautiful garden where they met others of their church who had suffered before them.
Shortly before the festival on which the Christians were to provide the “entertainment” for the public, St. Felicitas went into labor and was delivered of a baby girl. The child was taken by another Christian woman of the city to raise as her own.
Perpetua’s diary ends at this point and an eye witness supplies the remaining details of the martyrs’ final hours. On the night before the “show”, the prisoners were fed well and the curious public was invited to come and watch the condemned eat their last meal. The Christians were able to inspire several, including Pudens, the keeper of the prison, to conversion.
As the prisoners entered the arena, they called out to Hilarion, “You judge us in this world, but God will judge you in the next.” Different kinds of wild animals were released upon each of them – a bear, a wild boar, a leopard. Perpetua and Felicitas were tossed about by a wild cow. Their clothes and their bodies were torn, but they remained alive, Perpetua enduring all as if in a trance.
Finally, as was the custom, when the people had had their fill of the bloody combat, soldiers finished off the martyrs with the sword. The newly-baptized Christians of Carthage, confessing Christ to the end, received their heavenly palms on March 7, 203. Within 50 years, the witness of these saints of God was being celebrated all over the Christian world.
Because we have the diary of this courageous saint and the account of the martyrdom of the companions from a sympathetic eye witness, those of us who face many lesser dangers and persecutions can be inspired to keep the faith and persevere in our commitment to Christ. We know that Ss. Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions are praying for us on our journey.