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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Early female martyrs now patrons of expectant mothers

Voices Jan. 16, 2019

B.C. Catholic author John Paul Sonnen stands at the entrance of the chapel dedicated to Sts. Perpetua and Felicity in the arena where the two female martyrs perished in Carthage, North Africa. (OC-Travel photo)

Christians of all ages are fond of reading the Passion of the Holy Martyrs (Vivia) Perpetua and Felicitas (Felicity) and their companions, an early Christian text edited by an unknown author. 

This inspiring work is a fascinating historical window, easily read and understood by all. It is one of the oldest and notable early Christian texts.

Versions in both Latin and Greek survive to the present day. The narrative purports to contain the actual prison diary of the young mother Perpetua who is martyred for the faith in the Roman city of Carthage, North Africa (modern-day Tunisia).

Catholic scholars are in agreement that the document is legitimate – an authentic piece of early Church history, although it has been redacted (edited) likely more than once.

Perpetua and Felicity, renowned today as Christian martyrs of the third century, are believed to have died in 203 AD. Perpetua was a married noblewoman who was about 22 at the time of her death – with an infant son still nursing.

Felicity was a slave imprisoned with Perpetua and pregnant at the time of her arrest. She gave birth in prison to a daughter slightly before her martyrdom.

The two died together, put to death among Christians in the arena in North Africa.

According to the text, Perpetua was a catechumen along with the slaves Felicitas and Revocatus, and two free men by the names of Saturninus and Secundulus.

The group, former pagans not yet baptized Christians, were being instructed in the faith for baptism before their capture. They were arrested for their Christian faith and baptized in prison.

Lastly they were executed during the military games in celebration of the birthday of the Emperor.

To this group was added the name of Saturus, a man who voluntarily went before the magistrate to proclaim himself a fellow Christian and receive his death sentence. 

Perpetua’s account of events leading to their deaths was written in the first person. An editor who identifies himself as an eyewitness narrates the introduction and martyrdoms at the end, making note of the sufferings and death of the martyrs.

A brief introduction is followed by the narrative and visions (dreams) of Perpetua, and the vision of Saturus. The saintly women show themselves courageous in the face of death. The story concludes with an account of their actual deaths.

Perpetua’s account opens with conflict between her and her father, who desires for her to recant her Christian belief. Perpetua bravely refuses and is soon baptized before being moved to a dungeon.

After the guards are bribed, she is permitted to have a few hours of fresh air each day. She nurses her child and gives its charge to her mother and brother, then taking it back to cradle it and care for it until her bitter death.

Perpetua’s father visits her in prison and pleads with her. Meanwhile, Perpetua remains steadfast in her faith. When she is brought to a hearing before the governor, she boldly confess her Christian faith.

The day before her martyrdom, Perpetua envisions herself in a dream defeating a savage Egyptian and interprets this to mean she will have to do battle not merely with beasts but with the devil himself. 

Meanwhile, Felicity also in prison goes into labour and delivers a child despite her initial concern that she would not be permitted to suffer martyrdom with the others. This is because the law forbade the execution of pregnant women.

On the day of the games the martyrs were led into the amphitheatre. Perpetua sang psalms. At the demand of the mob they were first scourged before a line of gladiators. Then wild animals were released to devour them before the audience.

Wounded by the fierce onslaught, the Christians gave each other the kiss of peace and were then put to death by the sword. 

The text describes the death of Perpetua: “But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the ribs,” while she cried out loudly. The text ends as the narrator extols the acts of the martyrs. 

The martyrs died during the reign of the Roman Emperor Septimus Servus (193-211), a time of numerous savage persecutions both local and across the empire. In Carthage some Christians were even burnt alive.

Today Saints Perpetua and Felicity are patronesses of mothers and expectant mothers. The place of their martyrdom, the arena of Carthage in the Roman Province of Africa, is visited by many pilgrims.

The site, known on maps as the Carthage Amphitheatre, is located near the American Cemetery just northeast of Tunis, Tunisia. This is the archeological zone of ancient Carthage, a Punic and Roman city that later became a great Christian city.

Today the site and archeological zone are open to the public and easily reached from downtown Tunis by a taxi or hired car with driver.

Visitors find the Roman amphitheatre in ruins. All that is left is the elliptical foundation and grassy soil with pieces of miscellaneous rubble seen here and there. 

The amphitheatre was constructed in the first century and rebuilt at a later date. The capacity was an estimated 30,000 spectators.

The impressive edifice earned the admiration of travellers over the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages when visitors came to see the Roman ruins, many of which have since been destroyed by looters who pillaged the stone. 

In 1887, French Catholics placed in the centre a memorial to the Christian martyrs, honouring especially Perpetua and Felicity. The cross has since been knocked down although the pillar remains.

At the same time French Catholics also constructed an underground chapel built discreetly into the ground of the middle of the arena to honour Saints Perpetua and Felicity, who are mentioned by name on a carved marble slab. The chapel is still visible today with its stone altar, seen through a locked gate.

All of this area is of immense historical import, dating from ancient times. This is also the city where St. Augustine lived and studied and his mother St. Monica visited. Ruins of a few important Christian churches from the Byzantine era offer a unique glimpse of the past. 

In Carthage a great basilica was later built over the tomb of the martyrs, the Basilica Maiorum, where an ancient inscription bearing the names of Perpetua and Felicity was found.

Perpetua and Felicity are mentioned in the Roman Canon of the Mass, among the seven women and eight men commemorated by name in the list of ancient martyrs mentioned in the second part of the Canon Missae. 

The two saints are commemorated in the The Roman Martyrology, one of the most interesting books for pilgrims to read, in which are to be found the eulogies of the saints and blessed throughout the calendar year.

The Sixth Day of March in the Martyrology commemorates Saints Perpetua and Felicity, reminding readers that on the following day (March 7), they “received from the Lord the glorious crown of martyrdom.” 

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.