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St Perpetua and St Felicity and their Companions
Martyrs (entered heaven this day in 203)
Humph. Your latest note confirmed my suspicion that the devil does get smarter as the years go by. Nowadays he invites us to renounce our faith silently, merely by going along with the kind of behavior that seems so normal on college campuses (or in corporate offices, for that matter). Such behavior makes life pleasant and non-confrontational, even though it smothers your friendship with Christ. I think it may take more courage to stay faithful to Christ amid the subtle and steady seductions of college culture than it did during the violent persecutions of the first Christian centuries. Even so, the example of the Christians who kept their faith amid those pressures can help give you the strength you need to guard your chastity, your honesty, your hope and your trust in God (choosing obedience to him over obedience to self-indulgence and ease) while everyone around you is bowing down to postmodern idols.
Of course, you remember the famous history of these North African martyrs, don’t you? Five catechumens (Christians who were receiving instruction in the faith as a preparation for their baptism) were arrested during the Emperor Severus’s persecution. They were imprisoned, publicly commanded to sacrifice to the pagan gods, and when they wouldn’t they were condemned to death by wild beasts in the local amphitheatre. They had to spend time in prison after their condemnation, because the governor wanted to include their execution in some upcoming festival games. One of the five, Felicity, was a pregnant slave girl (maid of Perpetua, another prisoner). She was afraid that she would not be allowed to offer her life, since pregnant women were exempt from capital punishment. In answer to her prayers, she gave birth during her imprisonment, and her daughter was adopted by some fellow Christians. Perpetua was a 22-year-old wife and mother, whose first child was still nursing.
While they were in prison, Perpetua’s father, who was not a Christian, visited her, trying to dissuade her from dying for Christ. He threw himself at her feet, he kissed her hands, he begged her to have mercy on him and the other members of her family… And then, later, during the interrogation with the local judge, her father showed up again, holding her infant in her arms. He wept as he tried to convince her to renounce the faith for the sake of her child and her family. Likewise, Felicity’s husband visited the prison, and did his best to convince Felicity to renounce Christ out of love for her newborn child. You can imagine how torn these two young women must have felt in the face of such appeals! But their faith in Christ was fresh, and they had received solid instruction in what it meant to be a Christian, and the Holy Spirit bolstered their hope so that they recognized the true hierarchy of values, in which the first commandment is always to love God above all things, even to the point of giving up all things.
That precisely is the lesson that today’s generation seems to have forgotten. A bit of humiliation, a bit of self-sacrifice, a bit of ambition and thirst for worldly recognition, and our Christian identity gets relegated to second place. The Church’s most promising young saints, whom God has surely given the mission to spark a renaissance of holiness and justice, end up minimizing their Christian identity and putting all their energy into striving for this world’s seductive promises of comfort, recognition, and “success”. Would that they held up to their imagination the examples of the saints, of heroic women like Perpetua and Felicity, instead of goggling at CEOs and movie stars and who-knows-what role models the devil astutely presents to them!
In any case, God rewarded their fidelity, giving supernatural fortitude to Perpetua and her companions, and they showed such confidence and joy in Christ during their captivity, on their way to the amphitheatre, and during their actual martyrdom, that one of their jailors and dozens of the spectators became believers. The five Christians were torn by wild beasts and then beheaded. And a slew of conversions followed in the wake of their courage. May God grant that the same courage fill your heart and mind, so that you keep your priorities straight in the face of the devil’s subtle and often painful (emotionally speaking) attacks.
Your loving uncle,