Two of the seven female martyrs whose names are in the Roman Canon (First Eucharistic Prayer), Ss Felicity and Perpetua, grace this coming Monday, March 6 in the traditional calendar and March 7 in the newer.
In the 3rd century there was widespread corruption and decadence in the ruling Roman aristocracy. Persians were menacing the eastern borders. Germanic barbarians pressed on the north. The economy was a disaster. From the pagan point of view, something had upset the proper order of society and the relationship of the state with the gods, the pax deorum. A new religion was taking hold in great numbers. Sporadic and sometimes savage persecutions of Christians flared up. The aim was to cut down the leaders of the troublemaking Christian sect. The result, however, was that the Church grew stronger through the blood of martyrs (from the Greek word for “witness”).
We have an early 3rd-century North Africa prison diary of a young noblewoman named Vibia Perpetua, martyred with a slave girl, Felicitas, around 203 in Carthage. Perpetua was a 22-year-old catechumen (not yet baptised) who identified herself as Christian. Emperor Septimius Severus had forbidden conversion to Christianity. Although many tried to dissuade her, Perpetua handed over her still-nursing baby and insisted on being put into the arena. With great heroism she faced animals and gladiators. After many torments a young gladiator was sent to finish her off, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Finally, Perpetua grabbed his hand and pointed his sword at her own throat.
The heroism of Perpetua inspired many others who began to give strong witness to their faith and were subsequently imprisoned.
Martydom was also the fate of the pregnant slave girl Felicity. She had given birth just before the imprisoned Christians were sent to the arena. The acta (trial records and transcripts) and ancient diaries indicate the amazing love these Christian martyrs had for each other in prison. One moment related is that when Perpetua and Felicity were being tortured, they arranged each other’s clothing to preserve their modesty. They bade each other farewell with the kiss of peace.
Speaking of the kiss of peace, the parting gesture of Perpetua and Felicity should remind us today to be dignified during Holy Mass and uphold the solemnity of the moment in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, when the entirely optional Sign of Peace may be invited.
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