On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Perpetua and St. Felicity.
"In the springtime of the year 203, a young North African woman was taken into custody by Roman soldiers in the city of Carthage, in what is now contemporary Tunisia. Twenty-two, of good family, well educated, married, and nursing a child, Vibia Perpetua was charged with violating a decree issued the previous year by the Roman emperor Septimus Severus outlawing conversion to Christianity."
--from Happiness: A History, by Darrin M. McMahon, Grove Press, 2006.
With her were a few companions, including her personal slave, Felicity, who was eight months pregnant. They were condemned to die in the arena, to be destroyed by wild beasts.
Felicity was worried that her pregnancy would prevent her from being martyred, as Roman law did not permit the execution of pregnant women, but her baby was born prematurely, and she was allowed to face the beasts with the others.
Perpetua wrote an account of their imprisonment, "one of the earliest pieces of writing by a Christian woman". She tells of her worry for her infant, who was brought to her in prison to nurse. He was weaned just in time, relieving her anxiety about him. She tells of her visions and dreams, of the visits from her parents, and of the darkness. Another narrator, who finishes the story, tells how "one of the servants of the keeper of the door" mocked Felicity for crying out while giving birth. That narrator concludes with a description of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity and their companions.
Click here to read "The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity".
St. Perpetua's prison diary "is an archetype of the genre of personal passion . . . a precious source for anyone seeking to understand the transformative power of this nascent faith."
In the years after Felicity and Perpetua were martyred, Christians in North Africa and throughout the Roman world began celebrating their memory with great feasts on March 7. The festivities were "of such earthly intensity that in 307 the Council of Carthage sought to curtail them". To no avail. The pilgrims kept coming to the tombs of Felicity and Perpetua, and the agapes continued. In the early 5th century, Augustine of Hippo "spoke with particular rapture on these days of remembrance".
Felicity and Perpetua are two of the seven female saints whose names may be mentioned in the Canon of the Mass, in Eucharistic Prayer I. The priest is not required to mention their names, which are in parentheses and may be omitted. That will not change when the new text with its infelicitous language is implemented. (The linked page shows the present text and the new text side by side.)
Click here to see an icon of Perpetua and Felicity, by Robert Lentz, on the web site of Mount Saint Agnes theological center for women. (There are some familiar names and faces on the Guest Scholars page.)