Today, the Church commemorates the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, along with their companions. These Christians were killed in the Roman Provinces of North Africa in the early third century AD. They were not alone, but shared the company of many men and women who were persecuted and killed during the early years of the Church’s life. The Church has persistently recalled the memory of the earliest martyrs. Perpetua and Felicity are invoked in the great Eucharistic Prayer of the Church of Rome (called the Roman Canon), a sign to the faithful of the esteem to which the earliest martyrs are accorded.
The memory of the earliest Christian martyrs has been distilled through the centuries through hagiographical accounts that have at times united historical details with legend. As such, some people dismiss accounts of the martyrs’ sufferings and deaths as embellished propaganda invented by the Church in order to maintain its hold on the imagination of its adherents. According to this hermeneutic of suspicion, cultural solidity can be fostered and maintained by recalling the days of persecution, and then by convincing people that these persecutions of the past can quickly become the real terrors in the present. The Church therefore created the stories of the persecuted martyrs for the purposes of social control.
These kinds of suspicious musings in regards to the suffering and death of the Church’s martyrs fail to consider that these stories arose for the most part, not in conditions in which the Church had a cultural power and influence, but in conditions in which the Church was persecuted. In light of the contemporary experiences of Christian persecution by groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram, the descriptions of the tortures and torments of the early Christian martyrs seems less incredible and more credible—and remembered not simply for the purposes of propaganda, but because they really were that terrible. Bold Christian witness in the face of such horrors deserved to be remembered in order to honor those who endured such pain and remained faithful until the end.
As it was then, so it must be now. We live in an age when Christians are viciously killed because they will not deny their faith in the Lord Jesus. Their sufferings and deaths are not a fabrication of propagandists. Remembering the martyrs is, in this respect, an act of justice. Our frame of reference for understanding the ancient accounts of the deaths of the earliest martyrs is not the past, but the present moment. The hermeneutic of suspicion that has been invoked in regards to the persecution texts of the Church’s earliest martyrs should be set aside.
An account of the suffering and death of Saints Perpetua and Felicity exists, and is written from the first person perspective of Perpetua herself. Like the Gospels, the text is both a compilation of eyewitness testimony to an actual event as well as a theological narrative. As to the authorship of the text, scholars disagree, but for the reader, the story of Perpetua’s sufferings is meant to be understood personally. From it we are meant to understand, not simply the historical facts, but how the experience of persecution felt to those who suffered. This feeling is intended to invoke both empathy and compassion.
The account, entitled “The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas and their Companions,” concerns the suffering and death of a Roman noblewoman who is convicted of treason for professing the Christian faith and imprisoned along with several others who share her faith. The stakes are particularly high for Perpetua, not just because of her highborn status, but because she is pregnant, and thus her refusal to recant her Christian faith has consequences, not just for herself, but for the child in her womb. Attempts are made to rescue Perpetua from circumstances that will inevitably lead to torture and death, but she remains steadfast, finding consolation with her companions, all of whom are beneath her proper social status (a key factor in the story, the implications of which would not have been missed by those who heard it in its original telling). Perpetua, in affirming her Christian faith, confirms her fidelity to Christ even unto death, associates herself with the poor, and even overcomes an instinct as basic and primordial as that of a mother protecting her child. Once her death is the sure and certain outcome, the story shifts from first to third person.
Reading the text is somewhat like reading the libretto of an opera. The pathos of the narrative is amplified inasmuch as we are dealing with a pregnant woman who is evidently very close to giving birth. (I thought while re-reading this text of the brilliant movie Fargo, and the manner in which the presentation of the sheriff, Marge, worked to enhance the dramatic import of the story.) The memory of a pregnant woman, imprisoned and then compelled to surrender her child to the care of others, is something that could not, and should not, be forgotten. In this regard, the story raises the stakes; it was not an isolated incident. The slave, Felicity, who is also pregnant, joins Pereptua in her captivity and will share her fate. Thus the martyrs’ sufferings leveled out social differences—all were made one in Christ.
The totality of this dramatic account—eyewitness testimony imbued with theological narrative—impressed upon the reader/listener the gravity of the situation for the earliest Christians and what persecution really and truly meant. Close in time to the composition of the Gospels, the story borrows elements of that new genre, giving the composition the aura of a revelatory text. Given its dramatic import, it seems helpful to divide the story into a six-act drama:
Act One: The Arrest and Imprisonment of Perpetua and Companions
Act Two: The Trial of Perpetua
Act Three: Perpetua’s Father Makes an Appeal
Act Four: The Vision of Pereptua’s Companion Saturus
Act Five: Pereptua Gives Birth and Bids Farewell to Her Child
Act Six: Deaths of the Martyrs
Each of the acts includes dramatic visions through which Perpetua and her companions instruct the hearers or readers of their story in the theological implications of the events taking place. The story is, to borrow from Hans Urs von Balthasar, best described as a “theo-drama” in which God is an active, involved participant in the events as they unfold. Perpetua and her companions are being transformed by their love of Christ into a new kind of creation, what the Church calls saints, and in this transformation a likeness to Christ is accomplished which is illuminated as God’s purpose and the true destiny of each of the martyrs. The powers of the world that inflicted such cruelty on the martyrs thought that their power would result in destruction, but God in Christ acts to subvert that plan, using the very means by which the world destroys to be the way in which he brings his creation to its proper fulfillment.
This story of the martyrdom of Perpetua and her companions is the story of the Paschal Mystery redivivus. The Christian becomes most fully herself or himself inasmuch as there is a will to be conformed to Christ in suffering and death. Martyrdom, like baptism, accomplishes a transformation of the recipient into an alter Christus—another Christ.
When the Christian, indeed the world, sees the suffering and death of the martyr, what is happening is not merely a display of cruelty and injustice, but a revelation of suffering giving way to love, retribution giving way to forgiveness, and death giving way to a new kind of life.
In remembering the story of the Church’s earliest martyrs, what is being recalled is not merely their passion, but the Passion of Christ.