Saints Perpetua & Felicitas – Heroines of the Faith
Love the Saints
Catholics love the Saints. We name our churches and schools after them. Catholic children are given saints’ names at Baptism. We place their statues in our churches and homes. We celebrate their deathdays, which are their actual birthdays into Heaven.
There is an ancient saying in Latin: “Lex orandi est lex credendi,” which translates, “The law of praying is the law of believing.” In other words, “You pray as you believe.” We believe in saints’ intercession before the throne of God. That is why their names are included in the official prayer of the Church, the Liturgy.
In the Traditional Latin Liturgy of the Mass, the saints are invoked, not only in general but specifically by name. In the most sacred part of the Mass, the Canon, seven female saints are mentioned. Two of them are briefly described here.
On March 7th, in the year 203 A.D. two young women, two mothers gave up their children and family and sacrificed their lives rather than deny their Faith. They are Perpetua, 22, of noble rank, and Felicitas, her serving maid. Perpetua was nursing a newborn son and Felicitas was eight months pregnant.
Both were apprehended by the Roman authorities of Carthage and after refusing to deny Christ and offer pagan sacrifice, they were condemned to die in the local amphitheater. However, pagan Roman law forbade the execution of a “woman with child” and Felicitas could not be executed until she gave birth. So eager was she to be a witness to Christ together with Perpetua, that she prayed with her fellow prisoners for delivery, upon which her baby girl was born.
While in prison waiting for execution, Saint Perpetua wrote her story. Father Barrett summarizes it in his poem below.
Two Carthaginian Girls
by Father Alfred Barrett, S.J.
Walking at night-fall where the pink
And red hibiscus trimly furls,
I watch two petals blow to the grass,
Two crimson stains to make me think
Upon those Carthaginian girls,
Whose very names our missals link
In perpetual felicity.
Blurred centuries dissolve. I see
A martyr walking to her crown,
Pale as her ungirded gown,
The tall, serene, patrician
Of humbler origin, a slave,
Nurses her dungeon-born with tears,
Her babe of two brief days. Some man
Derides her travail pain and sneers,
“How against beasts will you be brave?”
To whom the martyr makes reply,
“I suffer now, but when I die
Christ suffers in me then, not I.”
They wait unseeing side by side,
When over the arena sands
Races a tawny, snarling tide,
A surf of lions circling round,
Lions that cringe and paw the ground-
For suddenly no spear can prod
Them on to where Perpetua stands
Like a light-house shining out to God
With the white beams of extended hands
Careless of death, its when and how,
The mistress and the serving lass,
Encircle one another’s necks,
Embracing, till a goaded cow
Is loosed to match and mock their sex.
Perpetua is tossed. She falls
Piteously. The heifer mauls
With violating horns. But she
Arises, mangled, smoothes her dress
And drapes that riven tunic, less
Mindful of pain than modesty.
Then gathering her streaming hair
In the pathos of her womanly pride,
Begs for some clasp. With skill and care
Both arms sweep in fluent curves
To her head, that, though her robes be torn,
His eyes whom she dying serves
May deem her vain as any bride
And not as one who seems to mourn.
Two Carthaginian girls, they kneel,
Upon their lifted throats to feel
The sacrificial coup-de-grace,
The stroke of consecrating steel.
So far away and long ago
These girls were born and loved and died.
It daily sets my heart aglow
To see-like petals side by side-
Pressed in the Canon of the Mass