Last week I said that none of the most popular superheroes could defeat the devil. But one woman martyr did crush him in a vision–the day before she and her companions died gloriously for the faith in North Africa in the year 203.
In my opinion, St. Perpetua had as much valor as a Navy Seal and so did St. Felicity, both of whom share a feast day this week. They were among the most well-known and venerated martyrs of the early Church.
Besides their bravery in facing a savage death for professing to be Christians, these women show us their great faith, hope and trust in God. They also teach us something about parenting under extreme stress.
Perpetua was a noblewoman from the city of Carthage, near the modern city of Tunis in Tunisia. Felicity was a slave. They and three others were arrested for their faith, and for refusing to pay tribute to the Roman gods. Perpetua had an infant son; Felicity was eight months pregnant.
The women were sentenced to be torn apart by beasts as part of the emperor’s birthday celebration. They were baptized before being led away to prison.
It seems ironic that they were arrested for being Christians before they were actually baptized into the faith but it was common at that time for believers to wait for baptism until they were near death. They understood that baptism was for the forgiveness of sins and thus it was held with such value that many waited to receive the sacrament until right before dying.
Perpetua’s father visited her in prison with her son to convince her to abandon her faith. Eventually she was allowed to keep her son in prison with her.
Felicity worried that she wouldn’t be martyred with Perpetua and the others because Roman law forbade executing pregnant women. Two days before she and the others were thrown into the arena, she gave birth and her baby was adopted by a Christian couple.
Perpetua and Felicity’s Christian witness in prison resulted in the conversion of one of the jailers.
Perpetua’s vision of her battle with the devil was one of several she had while in prison. The day before her execution, she dreamed she was brought into the amphitheater but instead of beasts, she saw an Egyptian. Then a man taller than the top of the arena appeared holding a rod used by gladiators and a branch of golden apples. She was to fight the Egyptian and either he would kill her with a sword or she would conquer him and receive the branch.
She told of the gladiator battle in The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman:
And we came nigh to each other, and began to buffet one another. He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote upon his face. And I rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth. But when I saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger of them. And I caugth his head, and he fell upon his face; and I trod upon his head. … And I went up to the master of gladiators and received the branch. And he kissed me and said to me: ‘Daughter, peace be with you.’ And I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life. And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil, but I knew that mine was the victory.
When Perpetua and Felicity actually were martyred on March 7, they were first whipped and then thrown into the arena where they were mauled by a wild cow. They exchanged the kiss of peace and were killed by a sword.
Before her martyrdom, St. Perpetua professed her faith:
For this cause came we willingly unto this, that our liberty might not be obscured. For this cause have we devoted our lives.