After a lull in the official persecutions of Christians, in A.D. 250 the Emperor Decius determined that Christians were the enemies of the Roman Empire.
Sound like any American President you know? But I digress.
At that time in the Empire there was widespread corruption and decadence in the aristocracy. The Persians were menacing the Eastern borders and Germanic barbarians were pressing on the North. The economy was a disaster.
From the pagan point of view, something had upset both the proper order of society and the relationship of the state with the gods, the pax deorum. A new religion was taking hold in great numbers.
Decius issued a decree. Under pain of death everyone was to sacrifice to the Roman gods and obtain a certificate that they had done so. The aim was to cut down the leaders of the trouble-making Christian sect.
The result, however, was a strengthening of the Church through the blood of martyrs (from the Greek word for “witness”). A new cult of martyrs developed and many were thereby attracted to Christianity.
The whole of the third century was marked by persecutions of Christians, though they were sporadic and often localized. They took place whenever social conditions degenerated enough to warrant a scapegoat. We have documents from that period attesting to the persecution of Christians including the prison diary of a young woman named Perpetua, martyred around 202 in Carthage, North Africa.
Perpetua was still a catechumen (not yet baptized), but who nevertheless identified herself as Christian. She handed over her still nursing baby and insisted on being put into the arena during a civic festival. After many tried to dissuade her, she got her wish.
With great heroism she faced the animals and gladiators. After many torments a young gladiator was sent to finish her off, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Finally, Perpetua grabbed his hand and pointed his sword at her own throat. The heroism of Perpetua inspired many people who also began to give strong witness to their faith and were subsequently imprisoned.
This was also the fate of a pregnant slave girl named Felicity (Felicitas).
Felicity had her baby just before the imprisoned Christians were in their turn all sent to the arena. The acta (trial records and transcripts) and ancient diaries indicate the charity these Christian martyrs had for each other in prison. There is a powerful scene related when Perpetua and Felicity arrange each others clothing so as to preserve their modesty even while they were being tortured. They bade each other farewell with that evocative ancient Christian gesture preserved in Holy Mass, the kiss of peace.
The farewell gesture of Perpetua and Felicity should remind us today to be dignified and to uphold the solemnity of the moment in Holy Mass if and when the optional sign of peace is invited.
If we are interested in our family history, we should be interested in the lives of saints, our forebears in our family of faith. Learning about our family history teaches us something about who we are. Learning about the figures in Scripture and the lives of saints teaches us who we are.
We should reflect on the stories of martyrs, our forebears, who give us examples for facing the challenges we will face in the future.