March 7, the feast day for St. Perpetua, is behind us. But, her inspirational testimony still lives on. St. Perpetua was an incredible young African woman, mother and martyr of the Catholic Church. She bore witness to her Savior with her very life; this, around the year 203 A.D. She was one of those Catholics who were martyred shortly after her baptism.
The new convert was arrested and imprisoned for being a Christian. Summoned before the court in northern Africa, she was given the opportunity to renounce her faith in Christ. St. Perpetua’s father, who was standing by, first pleaded with her in anger and then in tears for her to deny her Christian identity. But neither the judge nor her own father could prevail on her. As pagans, they could not understand why this young mother would not renounce her faith in order to live. Incensed by St. Perpetua’s “stubbornness,” he sentenced her to the wild beasts in the amphitheater (a kind of mini-coliseum).
With resolve and joy in her heart, she returned to her cell. But the conditions of the prison were oppressive. With an infant to nurse and care for, it was all the more difficult to remain joyful. During the days leading up to her death she had time to write an account of those dark days in the dungeon.
"A few days later we were lodged in the prison, and I was much frightened, because I had never known such darkness. What a day of horror! Terrible heat, owing to the crowds! Rough treatment by the soldiers! To crown all I was tormented with anxiety for my baby. But Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who ministered to us, paid for us to be moved for a few hours to a better part of the prison and we obtained some relief. All went out of the prison and we were left to ourselves. My baby was brought and I nursed him, for already he was faint for want of food. I spoke anxiously to my mother on his behalf and encouraged my brother and commended my son to their care. For I was concerned when I saw their concern for me. For many days I suffered such anxieties, but I obtained leave for my child to remain in the prison with me, and when relieved of my trouble and distress for him, I quickly recovered my health. My prison suddenly became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.”
“My prison became a palace to me!” Ah! What an insight. It is life’s best kept secret: to taste the joy of knowing Christ even in the greatest of difficulties. When the charms of this earthly life loses its sparkle and its promise seems to fade, it is then that the Good Lord often communicates the joys of heaven; so much so that people who feel close to God amid great trials develop a nostalgia for it when life prospers again.
It was reported that during St. Perpetua’s last meal (with other Christians such as St. Felicity) there were many conversions. She, as with her companions, was ready to lay down her life for Christ. This inspired many onlookers, to be sure. In fact, as she was led to the amphitheater, St. Perpetua was singing hymns. Indeed, a kind of spiritual levity came over her. And she was heard saying to her brother: “Stand fast in the faith and love one another! Do not let suffering be a stumbling block for you.”
To make a long story short, St. Perpetua provided the kind of entertainment the blood-thirsty pagans were looking for. After she entered the arena, a mad bull (or cow) tossed her about. Refusing to be disheveled, the young disciple of Christ picked herself up, straightened out her robe and proceeded to fix her hair. Apparently, she wanted to look good for Christ on her wedding day, the day that she was to be walked down that isle in Heaven.
In any case, St. Felicity, her companion, had also been attacked and wounded in the amphitheater during the same show. St. Perpetua approached her saintly companion and gave her the kiss of peace. It just so happened that the wild animals were no longer in the mood for killing. They had retreated into the cages. Nevertheless, the show had to go on. A few novice gladiators came out to finish the job. One gladiator in particular – nervous as can be – attempted to apply the sword to St. Perpetua’s neck but he was shaking too hard. The young Saint helped guide the sword to her own throat. The rest is history.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.