We so often hear stories of saints’ “heroic virtue”, particularly the experiences of martyrs. Whether St. Lawrence’s sarcastic jibes (while being burned alive on a grate, saying “Turn me over, I’m done on this side”) or St. Peter’s humble request (asking to be crucified upside down, because he was not worthy of the same death as Jesus); whether St. Thomas Becket’s murder in the cathedral or Oscar Romero’s murder in a hospital chapel; whether St. Thomas More’s beheading for refusing to accept King Henry VIII’s authority in ecclesiastical matters, or the beheading of Christians by ISIS for their refusal to deny their faith in Jesus Christ; the stories of martyrs have the power to move and profoundly affect us.
We recently (March 7) celebrated the feast of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. Theirs is a story of martyrdom, a story of complete gift of self to God, even to the point of death (cf. Philippians 2:8). Martyred in Rome along with a number of others, these women were catechumens – not even baptized yet, they were completely willing to give their lives for the sake of their faith.
Tradition holds that Septimius Severus, emperor of Rome from 193 to 211 A.D., instituted severe penalties for the crime of being a Christian. Under this decree, many Christians were rounded up, arrested, and if they refused to recant their Christianity, sentenced to death. The story of several of these martyrs comes down to us in a text called The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions.
Perpetua was a woman of noble birth, who lived in Carthage in North Africa, in what is today Tunisia. Perpetua did not come from a uniformly Christian family; her father was a pagan, as was one of her brothers. However, her mother and two brothers were Christians, and Perpetua herself was a catechumen, undergoing instruction in the Christian faith. Perpetua had a slave named Felicity, who was also a catechumen. These two women, along with three others (and later a fourth), were thrown into prison as a result of Septimius Severus’s decree.
At some point following their arrest, the five catechumens received baptism. They remained in prison, awaiting trial. The conditions in the prison were horribly oppressive, and Perpetua’s father continually tried to get her to apostatize, to abandon her Christian faith to save her life. But Perpetua continued to refuse.
At the time of her arrest, Perpetua had a young son. Her mother and catechumen brother visited her in prison, and brought Perpetua’s young child. She was allowed to keep him there and nurse him, and was moved to a better part of the prison. Perpetua had been overcome with anxiety for her son, but when she had him with her in the prison, she had a vision. This vision assured her of her coming martyrdom, and of the fact that she had nothing to fear. Her son would be okay, her family would be okay, and she did not need to fear the death that awaited her.
Felicity was in the eighth month of her pregnancy at the time they were imprisoned, but she gave birth to a daughter two days before their execution, and the baby was adopted by a Christian woman.
After being imprisoned for a time, the trial was held, and all the accused were asked to sacrifice to the Roman gods for the safety of the Roman emperor. Perpetua and the others were resolute in their refusal, adhering to their Christian faith, even in the face of pressure and threats from those present. The sentence was passed: the Christians were to be torn to pieces by wild beasts. The sentence would be carried out as part of the birthday festival of the Emperor Geta (who ruled along with his brother and their father, Septimius Severus).
Perpetua and Felicity and their companions were killed on March 7, probably in 203 A.D. It is 1,800 years later, and Christians still face such persecutions all over the globe. We seem to hear almost daily now about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, being attacked, driven from their homes, or brutally executed by ISIS and other groups; Christians in Africa who are collected and slaughtered by Boko Haram; Christians in China who are persecuted, arrested, and even killed for not belonging to the “state-sanctioned” Catholic Church; Christians killed in India; all over the world, these persecutions are happening even today. Many of us don’t have to face this persecution head-on. In fact, for many of us, it may be so intangible as to seem unreal or even mythical. But it is real. It is happening every day to people just like us. These modern-day martyrs are in a long line stretching back to St. Stephen, the proto-martyr, and even to Christ Himself.
Now, the perennial question with saints from antiquity is: why should we care? Sure, it’s great that they lived holy lives, and that they were willing to sacrifice everything, even to the point of death, for their faith in Jesus Christ. But what does that have to do with me?
One of the things that makes the stories of martyrdom so profound to us is the way in which they bring us outside of ourselves. The trials which martyrs face make each of us consider an important question: what would I do in that situation? In the face of death, would I be strong enough to persevere, and profess my faith in Jesus Christ?
This is not something we can do on our own. It is by the grace of God alone that one has the strength to stare death in the face, stand his ground, and declare “I am not afraid, for Jesus Christ is at my side.” Christ defeated death, and told us not to fear those who kill only the body (Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:4).
Perhaps we can take strength from what Christ tells his apostles to strengthen them against the impending persecution: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.” (Matthew 10:32-33; cf. Luke 12:8-9) Now, this is not to say that we should allow ourselves to be martyred only to avoid divine “retribution”. No, if our goal is only so that God “won’t be mad at us”, there is a lot to be desired in our motivations. Martyrdom is a witness to the Christian faith (and comes from the Greek word meaning “witness”), and can be an unspeakably profound attestation of faith in Jesus Christ. As Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We should be witnesses to the faith every day, and if we must face that ultimate test, may we have the strength to stand our ground and declare “I am not afraid, for Jesus Christ is at my side.”