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Perpetua, Felicity, and the theo-drama Print
Guest column
Thursday, Mar. 01, 2018 -- 12:00 AM

Word on Fire
Fr. Steve Grunow

On March 7, the Church commemorates the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, along with their companions. These Christians were killed in the Roman Provinces of North Africa in the early third century A.D.

They were not alone, but shared the company of many Christians who were persecuted and killed during the early years of the Church's life. The Church has persistently recalled the memory of the earliest martyrs.

Perpetua and Felicity are invoked in the great Eucharistic Prayer of the Church of Rome (called the Roman Canon), a sign to the faithful of the esteem to which the earliest martyrs are accorded.

Suffering of the saints

The memory of the earliest Christian martyrs has been distilled through the centuries through hagiographical accounts that have at times united historical details with legend. As such, some people dismiss accounts of the martyrs' sufferings and deaths as embellished propaganda, invented by the Church in order to maintain its hold on the imagination.

According to this hermeneutic of suspicion, cultural solidity can be fostered and maintained by recalling the days of persecution, and then by convincing people that these persecutions of the past can quickly become the present. Therefore, the Church created the stories of persecuted martyrs for the purposes of social control.

These kinds of suspicious musings in regards to the suffering and death of the Church's martyrs fail to consider that these stories arose, for the most part, not in conditions in which the Church had cultural power and influence, but condition

In light of contemporary experiences of Christian persecution by groups such as ISIS or Boka Haran, the descriptions of the tortures of early Christian martyrs seems less incredible and more credible.

Remembered not simply for the purposes of propaganda, but because they really were that terrible. Bold Christian witness in the face of such horrors deserves to be remembered.

Fidelity to Christ

An account of the suffering and death of SS. Perpetua and Felicity exists, and is written from the first person perspective of Perpetua herself. Like the Gospels, the text is a compilation of eyewitness testimony to an actual event and a theological narrative.

The account, entitled "The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions," concerns the suffering and death of a Roman noblewoman, who was imprisoned along with several others and convicted of treason for professing the Christian faith.

The stakes are particularly high for Perpetua, not just because of her highborn status, but because she is pregnant, and thus her refusal to recant her Christian faith has consequences, not just for herself, but for the child in her womb.

Perpetua, in affirming her Christian faith, confirms her fidelity to Christ even unto death. Once her death is the sure and certain outcome, the story shifts from first to third person.

Drama and import

Reading the text is somewhat like reading the libretto of an opera. The pathos of the narrative is amplified -- we are dealing with a pregnant woman who is evidently very close to giving birth. (I thought while re-reading this text of the manner in which the presentation of sheriff, Marge, in the brilliant movie Fargo worked to enhance the dramatic import of the story.)

In this regard, the story raises the stakes, and it was not an isolated incident. The slave, Felicity, who is also pregnant, joins Pereptua in her captivity and shares her fate.

Thus the martyrs' sufferings leveled out social differences -- all were made one in Christ. Given its dramatic import, it seems helpful to divide the story into a six-act drama:

Act One: The Arrest and Imprisonment of Perpetua and Companions.

Act Two: The Trial of Perpetua

Act Three: Perpetua's Father Makes an Appeal

Act Four: The Vision of Perpetua's Companion Saturus

Act Five: Perpetua Gives Birth and Bids Farewell to Her Child

Act Six: Deaths of the Martyrs

The story is, to borrow from Hans Urs von Balthasar, best described as a "theo-drama" in which God is an active, involved participant in the events as they unfold.

Transformation and revelation

Perpetua and her companions are transformed by their love of Christ into new creations, what the Church calls "saints." In this transformation, a likeness to Christ is accomplished, which is illuminated as God's purpose and destiny of each of the martyrs.

This story of the martyrdom of Perpetua and her companions is the story of the Paschal Mystery redividus. The Christian becomes most fully herself or himself inasmuch as there is a will to be conformed to Christ in suffering and death.

When the Christian, indeed the world, sees the suffering and death of the martyr, what is happening is not merely a display of cruelty and injustice, but a revelation of suffering giving way to love, retribution giving way to forgiveness, and death giving way to a new kind of life.

In remembering the story of the Church's earliest martyrs, what is being recalled is not merely their passion, but the Passion of Christ.

Fr. Steve Grunow is CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at