Under pain of death, everyone was to sacrifice to the gods and obtain a certificate.

Felicity and PerpetuaAfter 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.

Sts. Felicity and PerpetuaWith 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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Religious Liberty, Saints: Stories & Symbols, The future and our choices, The Last Acceptable Prejudice and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. ncstevem says:

    Ah, the ‘Sign of Peace’ otherwise known as the hand-shaky thing.

    On those ocassions when I assist at the NO Mass and am invited by the priest to offer each other the ‘Sign of Peace’, I choose the option not to participate – even with my wife. On ocassion I’ll kneel so those in the pew in front of me know that I choose to not participate.

  2. Sissy says:

    I nod with a smile to each neighbor, grip my Missal desperately with both hands, bow my head, and pray. Fr. manages to wade through the crowd, making it from front to back and up to the altar again with boisterous verve. After what feels like 5 minutes of general milling about, the storm passes overhead.

  3. labianchi says:

    I was curious if Fr. Z would possibly have some suggestions to read up on the stories of the martyrs?

  4. Mary Jane says:

    I know the Sign of Peace at the OF is frustrating, but I hope that is not the direction the discussion in this comment box goes…because this was a really good post, Fr Z, and it really gets one thinking about what we may have to suffer in the (near?) future.

  5. heway says:

    Thanks Father, for a beautiful rendition of the sacrifice of Perpetua and Felicity. I believe what they did is called ‘un abrazar’ in Spanish – which is a better description than the English. It is wonderful to note that saints who are ready to sacrifice their lives, always seem to acknowledge those who are accompaning them.
    Dearest Lord, that we may all be ready when called to recognize your Lordship, rather than deny you.

  6. teomatteo says:

    Father Z. wrote: “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.”

    I have this dream of writing a novel that begins with my father. He brings the faith to me (his 9 kids) and then the story goes back to his uncle. They served mass together in the little town of central IL in the 30’s . Then the story traces my uncle’s faith to another, then another all the way back to Italy and Sicily. Back thru Saints and Sinners eventually to Palestine. First Century. When i see things this way i feel a great responsibility not to end our commitment here in 2012. My kids are the next link. I can’t fail them.
    Thanks Father.

  7. Joseph James says:

    Thanks for a great post, Father Z.

    On the rare occasion that I choose to participate in the optional sign of peace, I nod to the people beside me (sometimes they grab my hand and shake it but that’s OK).

    Given the placement of the Peace in the order of Mass, which serves to magnify the solemnity of the moment, and since I have long recognized the connection between the sign of peace and the story of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, what disappoints me is not the fact that someone would grab my hand. What pains me is the incongruity between our two messages in that short transaction.

    My pew-mate is saying “howdy and how are ya on this fine mornin’ – nice to see ya in Church”.

    I am saying “I would die with you, for Him, should the time come”.

  8. Sissy says:

    Great comments, Mary Jane and Joseph James. You both put into words the discomfort and disconnect I often feel. We are living in sobering times; the example of these beautiful martyrs is well worth reflecting upon.

  9. wmeyer says:

    Sissy, there are many kinds of discomfort. In my case, since I got my new Missal, much of it comes from the painfully obvious ad libs. In my parish, the shuffling of people across the aisles for hand-holding in the Our Father is quite distracting, but the wandering in the sign of peace is worse. And the noise before Mass–almost all of it from the choir, who should know better–is a whole other issue.

    I can’t help thinking that the way things are headed, in a few months we may long for the days when these were our worst complaints.

  10. Sissy says:

    wmeyer said: I can’t help thinking that the way things are headed, in a few months we may long for the days when these were our worst complaints.

    wmeyer, amen! I have been praying that I will find the strength to carry whichever cross is mine to bear with the kind of courage Perpetua and Felicity displayed. I think dark days may be ahead of us.

  11. Brad says:

    “Moreover, for the young women the devil prepared a very fierce cow, provided especially for that purpose contrary to custom, rivalling their sex also in that of the beasts. And so, stripped and clothed with nets, they were led forth. The populace shuddered as they saw one young woman of delicate frame, and another with breasts still dropping from her recent childbirth. So, being recalled, they are unbound. Perpetua is first led in. She was tossed, and fell on her loins; and when she saw her tunic torn from her side, she drew it over her as a veil for her middle, rather mindful of her modesty than her suffering. Then she was called for again, and bound up her dishevelled hair; for it was not becoming for a martyr to suffer with dishevelled hair, lest she should appear to be mourning in her glory. So she rose up; and when she saw Felicitas crushed, she approached and gave her her hand, and lifted her up. And both of them stood together; and the brutality of the populace being appeased, they were recalled to the Sanavivarian gate. Then Perpetua was received by a certain one who was still a catechumen, Rusticus by name, who kept close to her; and she, as if aroused from sleep, so deeply had she been in the Spirit and in an ecstasy, began to look round her, and to say to the amazement of all, “I cannot tell when we are to be led out to that cow.” And when she had heard what had already happened, she did not believe it until she had perceived certain signs of injury in her body and in her dress, and had recognised the catechumen. Afterwards causing that catechumen and the brother to approach, she addressed them, saying, “Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings.”

    “…But Perpetua, that she might taste some pain, being pierced between the ribs, cried out loudly, and she herself placed the wavering right hand of the youthful gladiator to her throat. Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit.”

    From the Saints’ own account here:

    Stunningly beautiful. Lord have mercy on us, your lesser sheep.

  12. philologus says:

    In case you want to see what one of these “libelli” or proofs of sacrifice looked like:


    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  13. Pingback: Martyrdom Then And Now « Mundabor's Blog

  14. Pingback: THURSDAY MORNING EDITION | ThePulp.it

  15. Supertradmum says:

    Teach your children well and prepare them for martyrdom. Anything less is not enough. Martyrdom is a mind-set, not merely something which happens. One must build up an interior strength, a conviction and a humility. If we allow suffering in our lives everyday and become serene, yes, peaceful in the fact of such, we can face the ultimate test. Martyrdom is something we build in our characters before it comes upon us.

  16. LaurenHoeds says:

    Who is the artist who is responsible for the second image? It is stunning!

Comments are closed.