“The Church gives thanks for all women as they have come forth from the heart of God in all the beauty and richness of their femininity.” These words penned by Pope John Paul II in one of his Apostolic Letters, are a fitting tribute to all women.
Many women have been instrumental in me being who I am. Some of them are deeply inscribed in my heart. Among them, two in particular – Perpetua, a young married noble woman and her good-looking companion, Felicity.
They lived in Carthage, upper North Africa around the end of the first century. The emperor in Roman was Septimius Severus. At his time, all imperial subjects were forbidden under severe penalties to become Christians or Jews.
Perpetua, a well educated and high spirited woman, attracted by the love that the Christians showed towards each other, decided to enter the catechumenate. Her maid Felicity followed suit. It was a risky decision.
Her parents were the first to disapprove strongly. Besides being a terrible blow to their social status, they reasoned that their daughter at 22 years of age, had every reason to want to live – including a baby son who was still nursing.
Perpetua and Felicity were arrested. “I was much frightened, because I had never known such darkness. What a day of horror! Terrible heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all I was tormented with anxiety for my baby.”
They were brought to trial. The father made a final desperate attempt to bring her back to her senses. Carrying the baby in his arms, he entered the court room, weeping and pleading, “Lady, pity my white hairs! Pity your father, if I deserve you should call me father, if I have brought you up to this your prime of life, if I have loved you more than your brothers! Make me not a reproach to mankind! Look on your mother and your mother’s sister; look on your son who cannot live after you are gone. Forget your pride; do not make us all wretched! None of us will ever speak freely again if calamity strikes you.”
“So spoke my father in his love for me”, comments Perpetua, “kissing my hands and casting himself at my feet, and with tears calling me by the title not of ‘daughter’ but of ‘lady’. And I grieved for my father’s sake, because he alone of all my kindred would not have joy at my martyrdom. And I tried to comfort him, saying, ‘What takes place on that platform will be as God shall choose, for assuredly we are not in our own power but in the power of God.’
‘Are you a Christian?’ asked Hilarion, the magistrate, and I answered, ‘Yes, I am.’ My father then attempted to drag me down from the platform, at which Hilarion commanded that he should be beaten off, and he was struck with a rod. I felt this as much as if I myself had been struck, so deeply did I grieve to see my father treated thus in his old age.”
The sentence was clear – death by the wild beasts. They gave thanks to God!
Meanwhile, Felicity was passing through her difficult moments. She was eight months pregnant and it was the law that pregnant women cannot be executed. She was afraid she may lose her ‘chance’ to be martyred. These people, the Christians, they live in another world!
The guards hearing her groaning because of the child birth pains, made fun of her, ‘If you think you suffer now, how will you react when face the wild beasts?’ Felicity’s answer portrays the conviction of the early Christians. “Now I’m the one who is suffering, but in the arena Another will be in me suffering for me because I will be suffering for him.”
A witness describes the final chapter of their lives thus. “The day of the martyrs’ victory dawned. They marched from their cells into the amphitheater, as if into heaven, with cheerful looks and graceful bearing. If they trembled it was for joy and not for fear.”
They were first scourged and then at the demand of the blood thirsty mob, they were mauled…. The men by a boar, a bear, and a leopard, and the women by a wild heifer.
The heifer threw them away with his horns. Perpetua got up and, seeing that Felicity was prostrate, went over and reached out her hand to her and lifted her up. Both stood up together.
“The crowd wanted to see the sword thrust into the bodies of the victims, so that their eyes might share in the slaughter. Without being asked they went where the people wanted them to go; but first they kissed one another, to complete their witness with the customary kiss of peace.”
Perpetua’s last words were to her brother in faith, “Stand fast in the faith and love one another.” Then she guided the sword of the nervous executioner to her throat!
I believe it was Jesus Christ who said “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters … he cannot be my disciple.” He is right, of course.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.