Saints Perpetua and Felicity

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Jacques Callot, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity,” an account of the martyrdom of a prosperous young woman and her servant in Carthage, is one of the most powerful and poignant documents of the early Church. Perpetua, the mother of a newborn son, was twenty-two when she was arrested with her pregnant servant Felicity for violating a prohibition against conversion to Christianity. This account of these two young mothers stands in contrast to the numerous accounts of “virgin martyrs.” “The Passion,” written largely in the voice of Perpetua herself, depicts the struggle of a woman to claim her own identity and vocation against the claims of society. In her reply to the consul, who appeals to her status as wife, daughter, and mother, one senses that in Christ she has found the power and freedom to name herself and the courage to accept the consequences: “I am a Christian.”  

In a series of prophetic visions, Perpetua is comforted by the assurance that her fate is ordained, and her brief suffering will lead to eternal reward. After entrusting her infant son to safe hands, she receives the grace to bear whatever may come. Felicity, meanwhile, goes into premature labor in her prison cell and is able to hand over her newborn daughter to Christian friends. The next day the prisoners went forth from the darkness of their cell into the glaring amphitheater, “as it were to heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance.” Stripped before the jeering crowd, they were exposed to wild beasts and put to the sword.  

“For this cause came we willingly unto this, that our liberty might not be obscured. For this cause have we devoted our lives.” —St. Perpetua 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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