Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Desiring God: Sts. Perpetua and Felicity

In the wake of posting about the inextricable relationship between desire and struggle, or the struggle borne of desire, it seems fitting that today we observe the liturgical memorial of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity of Carthage. Perpetua and Felicity, were martyred 7 March AD 203. Perpetua was a 22-year old newly married noble, and a nursing mother. Her co-martyr Felicity, was an expectant mother and Perpetua's slave. However, they were sisters in Christ, even before their martyrdom in the Roman coliseum at Carthage, where they were killed and devoured by wild beasts. Martyred with them were several catechumens: Revocatus, who, like Felicity, was a slave, along with Saturninus and Secundulus.

Deacons appear throughout what is believed to be Perpetua's actual prison testimony of her experience, which is passed down as The Passion of St. Perpetua. Her Passio was originally written in Latin and later translated into Greek. It was widely disseminated in the early Christian Church. First, in Section III, St. Perpetua wrote: "Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge."

Then, in Section VI of her account, after a failed attempt by her father to win her a reprieve before Hilarianus the Roman governor, she wrote, "Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits. But my baby had got used to being nursed at the breast and to staying with me in prison. So I sent the deacon Pomponius straight away to my father to ask for the baby. But father refused to give him over. But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort in my breasts..."


Finally, in the Xth Section she records a vision or dream she had on the night before her martyrdom, which was 6 March AD 203: "The day before we fought, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon had come hither to the door of the prison, and knocked hard upon it. And I went out to him and opened to him; he was clothed in a white robe ungirdled, having shoes curiously wrought. And he said to me: Perpetua, we await you; come. And he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places. At last with much breathing hard we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the midst of the arena. And he said to me: Be not afraid; I am here with you and labour together with you. And he went away..."

With a deep diaconal bow to my friend Fr. Peter Nguyen, S.J., I quote one of the three sermons St. Augustine preached on these glorious martyrs of Latin Africa "For Perpetua and Felicitas are the (names of two, but the reward of all... so that we glory in perpetual felicity" (Augustine, Serm. 281.3.3- it is important to note that these sermons, along with others, were (re-)discovered in Erfurt, Germany just a few years ago).

Father,
your love gave the Saints Perpetua and Felicity
courage to suffer a cruel martyrdom.
By their prayers, help us to grow in love of you.
We ask this through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post, Scott. I preached tonight about Perpetua and Felicity. Perpetua's diaries are a wonderful read for Lent. I have always felt for her pagan father who must have been filled with fear, knowing where his daughter's faith would take her. May we all be strengthened by her witness/martyrdom.

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  2. Yes, Bob. Her account of her father's pleading before the governor is heart-rending. I taught 7th and 8th grade religion in our Choir School once a week for a few years some years back, I would have them read and then we would discuss this Passio.

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