We’ve released a new kind of Bible study here on the blog. There are lots of biographies about the saints. But here, we’ve collected some of their lesser-known stories—brief snapshots into their daily lives that give us glimpses into the ways the saints shared the gospel with their friends.
Whether you are a skilled evangelist or hesitant to share your faith, we hope these stories will both inspire and instruct you to follow in their footsteps… on your campus, in your parish, or in your family.
This is a 3-part series, with possibly more to come in the future. I would love your feedback, and your input will be helpful as we build this study. So grab some friends, discuss the chapter together, and use the comment box below to let me know what you think. Thanks! – Katie
Ablaze: The Evangelization of the Saints
Chapter 3 • Perpetua’s Martyrdom and the Gift of Public Witness
Leader’s Note: For this study, we recommend that you read the saint’s story, in its entirety, with your group before starting the discussion.
The Cost of Discipleship
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles. . . . Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16–19, 21–23)
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be a young adult in the early Church? Amazingly, we have access to a rare, eye-witness account of someone who was: A Christian convert named Perpetua kept a diary, knowing that the events she faced would help to inspire future generations like ours, giving us courage as we bear witness to Jesus Christ.
Eighteen hundred years later, many people don’t even know of the diary’s existence. We will get a glimpse of it in this chapter.
The new religion of Christianity posed a particular difficulty for the Romans. For one thing, the Christians refused to worship any god other than their own. This monotheistic practice was problematic because the Roman emperor was supposed to be worshipped as a god. To make matters worse, the god worshipped by Christians was a man, whom the Romans themselves had executed as a criminal. Not to mention, these Christians all referred to each other as brother and sister, and they held secret “agape feasts,” wherein they admitted to eating flesh and drinking blood.
Needless to say, this was more than enough to disturb the average Roman citizen, so the government authorities took action in the form of a widespread and brutal persecution that lasted for centuries.
Arrest and Imprisonment
Perpetua had recently given birth to a baby boy, but it wasn’t long before she was arrested with several of her friends—all of them young catechumens preparing for baptism. Immediately, Perpetua’s father came to plead with her, attempting to talk her out of her newfound belief. She writes in her diary:
While I was still with the police authorities my father, out of love for me, tried to dissuade me from my resolution.
“Father,” I said, “do you see here, for example, this vase, or pitcher, or whatever it is?”
“I see it,” he said.
“Can it be named anything else than what it really is?” I asked, and he said, “No.”
“So I also cannot be called anything else than what I am, a Christian.”
Enraged by my words, my father came at me as though to tear out my eyes. . .
Thrown into prison, which was more like a deep, damp hole in a dungeon floor, Perpetua describes her experience:
I was terrified because never before had I experienced such darkness. What a terrible day! Because of crowded conditions and rough treatment by the soldiers, the heat was unbearable. My condition was aggravated by my anxiety for my baby. . .
These were the trials I had to endure for many days. Then I was granted the privilege of having my son remain with me in prison. Being relieved of my anxiety and concern for the infant, I immediately regained my strength. Suddenly the prison became my palace, and I loved being there rather than any other place.
During these first few days after their arrest, Perpetua and her friends were baptized. She explained, “The Spirit instructed me not to request anything from the baptismal waters except endurance of physical suffering.” Through baptism, they entered into full membership in the Body of Christ, and immediately, they came under fire for the creed they had just professed.
Dragged Before Governors
The group found themselves standing before the governor, Hilarion, for their hearing. A large crowd gathered to watch. One by one, each was questioned on the prisoner’s platform, and each responded by confessing his Christian faith. When it was Perpetua’s turn for questioning, her father appeared, holding her baby. Dragging her from the step, he cried, “Have pity on your son!” The governor joined in, tempting her, “Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son; offer sacrifice for the emperor’s welfare.”
But I answered, “I will not.” Hilarion asked, “Are you a Christian?” And I answered, “I am a Christian.” And when my father persisted in his attempts to dissuade me, Hilarion ordered him thrown out, and he was beaten with a rod. My father’s injury hurt me as much as if I myself had been beaten, and I grieved because of his pathetic old age. Then the sentence was passed; all of us were condemned to the beasts. We were overjoyed as we went back to the prison cell.
Felicity, another member of the group, was Perpetua’s servant and sister in the Faith. Felicity was eight months pregnant at the time of their arrest; by Roman law, it was forbidden to execute a woman while she was pregnant, so her martyrdom was likely to be delayed. This caused her great anxiety, worrying that she would not be able to be martyred with her friends but have to wait to be executed with common criminals.
Perpetua writes, “Her friends in martyrdom were equally sad at the thought of abandoning such a good friend to travel alone on the same road to hope. And so, two days before the contest, united in grief, they prayed to the Lord. Immediately after the prayers her labor pains began.”
Suddenly and miraculously, Felicity went into labor, and as the guards stood by mocking her, she gave birth, prematurely, to a baby girl. One of her sisters promised to raise the child as her own daughter. Relieved, Felicity knew that she could now die alongside her companions.
A Final Testament
Perpetua continued to document the events and visions she and her friends experienced until the day before the execution. Knowing it would inspire future Christians, she asked a friend to finish the diary by recording the details of her death. And so, according to Perpetua’s instruction, a new narrator and eyewitness picks up the pen and describes the martyrs’ last hours.
We learn that the group was offered one final meal, referred to as the “free meal”—a kind of last supper—on the day before they were to die. They tried, as best as they could, to make it into an “agape feast,” the earliest form of the Mass.
A crowd had gathered at the prison for the thrill of witnessing them dine for the last time. Addressing the crowd, the companions warned them of the judgment of God and begged them to remember the prisoners’ joy despite their suffering.
Many in the crowd were amazed by what they had seen and heard, and they began to believe.
The day of their martyrdom arrived: “They marched from the prison to the arena as though on their way to heaven. If there was any trembling it was from joy, not fear. Perpetua followed with quick step as a true spouse of Christ, the darling of God, her brightly flashing eyes quelling the gaze of the crowd.”
The narrator describes the arena, packed with spectators who had come for their share of entertainment. When the wild animals were released upon the group, Perpetua and Felicity were attacked by a mad cow:
Perpetua was tossed first and fell on her back. She sat up, and being more concerned with her sense of modesty than with her pain, covered her thighs with her gown which had been torn down one side. Then finding her hair-clip which had fallen out, she pinned back her loose hair, thinking it not proper for a martyr to suffer with disheveled hair; it might seem that she was mourning in her hour of triumph. Noticing Felicity was badly bruised, she went to her, reached out her hands and helped her to her feet. . .
And when the crowd demanded that the prisoners be brought out into the open so that they might feast their eyes on death by the sword, they voluntarily arose and moved where the crowd wanted them. Before doing so they kissed each other so that their martyrdom would be completely perfect by the rite of the kiss of peace.
One by one, the sword fell upon each of them. As the gladiator approached Perpetua, however, she could see that he was visibly shaken. “[Perpetua] took his trembling hand and guided it to her throat. Perhaps it was that so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not have been slain had she not herself willed it.” *
From there, she went on to join the Cloud of Witnesses, who by their word, life, and death give testimony to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, that we might find life in His name.
Perpetua was executed in the Carthage arena in 202 A.D. She was 20 years old.
“The Martyrdom of Perpetua,” translated by Rosemary Rader, from A Lost Tradition: Women Writers of the Early Church, edited by Patricia Wilson-Kastner et al., University Press of America, 1981.
You can read Perpetua’s full diary here.
*Note to the leader: Some might object that Perpetua’s martyrdom looks like a suicide, but this is not the case. As with Christ’s crucifixion, Perpetua offered her life freely, understanding that, without her consent, the gladiator could not have killed her. She merely let him know that she was willing to die. It was a giving, not a taking. She knew that God had called her to martyrdom, and she freely accepted that call.
Discussion Guide for Your Bible Study
It might seem hard to relate to Perpetua’s story, because her situation feels so different from anything we have ever experienced. Still, the Greek origin of the word “martyr” is translated, “witness,” and by our baptism, we are all called to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. Through the Sacrament of Confirmation, we receive the grace to endure even martyrdom.
1. What strikes you in Perpetua’s story?
2. What can you relate to in her story?
3. In what ways did Perpetua evangelize? Whom did she reach by her public witness?
4. Have you ever been affected by someone’s public witness of their faith in Jesus Christ? What was the effect on you? Were there visible consequences for that person (ridicule, humiliation, etc.)? For you?
5. How does Perpetua inspire you to give public witness to your faith in our own time?
Counting the Cost
6. Even if we are not asked to shed our blood, our Christian life requires little deaths every day. Life in Christ demands death to our sin, to our selfishness, to our vanity, to our pride, even sometimes to our preferences. We call these “white martyrdoms” (as opposed to “red martyrdoms,” involving bloodshed).
Name one way in which God may be asking you to die to yourself.
7. Even though Perpetua has to face her father’s anger for her choice, she clearly shows that she loves him deeply, without giving in to his demands. In fact, she would have been showing him “false love” had she succumbed to what he asked and denied her faith.
Have you ever been in a situation where someone you love or respect asked you to act in a way that contradicted your beliefs? How did you respond? In these situations, how can we offer both truth and charity?
8. The possible delay of Felicity’s execution was deeply distressing to her and her friends. They were already condemned to die, but they prayed that they could be united in the timing of their deaths. What does this say about their friendship? What would be the response of your friends if you gave public witness to your faith?
9. The Mass itself is a public witness to the Faith and has been outlawed at times throughout history. How do you think Perpetua’s story will influence your experience of the Mass?
You can access the rest of the Ablaze study here:
Ablaze Ch. 1: Xavier’s Incarnational Evangelization