Martyrdom has been and remains an ongoing story for those who follow Jesus Christ. For proof, we need look no farther than today’s feast day for Saints Perpetua and Felicity and today’s headlines about the massacre of Missionaries of Charity at a home for the elderly in Yemen and other acts of violence against Christians who have given their blood for the Church.
In 203 A.D., these two young mothers were marched into an amphitheater in Carthage in North Africa, where they were killed along with three fellow catechumens solely because they were Christian. Eighteen centuries after this persecution, which occurred under the reign of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, it is happening again in North Africa, and in the Middle East and elsewhere, as people young and old are killed by Islamic State militants and beleaguered by others also for the “crime” of being Christian.
Through the ages, Perpetua and Felicity and other early martyrs have been remembered. We recall them by name in the Eucharistic prayer at Mass and seek their intercession in the litany of saints. Moreover, we are inspired by their heroic stories. Perpetua’s prison diary and related text remains a particular classic of Christian literature.
In the account of the martyrdom of these two saints, we read that when Perpetua’s father pleaded with her to renounce her faith and thus be freed from certain death, she pointed to a water pitcher and noted it could be called by no other name than what it was. Then she said, “Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.”
The faith and courage of Perpetua, a 22-year-old married noble woman and mother of a young son, and Felicity, a servant who was pregnant when she was arrested, offer an exceptional example to Christians today. Knowing that she would be condemned for her answer when the procurator questioned her again, Perpetua resolutely reaffirmed, “I am a Christian.” Meanwhile, since the law did not permit pregnant women to be cast into the arena, Felicity rejoiced when she gave birth in prison so that it was then possible for her to join her friends in martyrdom.
According to eyewitness accounts, these women and their fellow Christians walked joyfully into the amphitheater, where first they were made sport of with wild beasts that attacked them. Although she was injured by being tossed about by an animal, Perpetua gave it no mind, offering encouragement instead to a brother and a catechumen, saying, “Stand fast in the faith, and love one another, all of you, and be not offended at my sufferings.”
These words still inspire eighteen centuries later. Then, the crowd having been entertained by the beasts, gladiators were called in and these blessed martyrs were dispatched by the sword.
Today, as was the case in Perpetua’s time, the utterance of that simple phrase, “I am a Christian” can be an offense punishable by social or legal sanction, imprisonment, or even death. Hundreds of millions of Christians in 60 countries around the world face some form of restriction. Christians are being systematically persecuted and killed, and churches destroyed in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. And like Pope Francis said yesterday of the sisters killed in Yemen, they too are “victims of the attack by those who killed them, but also victims of indifference.” World leaders, the media and even some fellow Christians have essentially reacted to the unfolding genocide mostly with either disinterest or silence.
Here at home, most Christians are not called to martyrdom. But we do face increasing hostility to our being Christian both out in the public square and even within our institutions.
We live our faith not only during worship in the walls of our churches, but also in our educational, health care and social service ministries, and yet more and more the culture and government regulations seek to impose a secular view of morality on the Church. They tell us on the one hand that if we are to serve others in the community, then we need to leave our faith behind at the church door. Then they tell us that within the Church itself, even in positions of ministry, we should be required to retain those persons who are opposed to what we believe. Not even our Catholic institutions are allowed to be Catholic in this view.
Catholic organizations and individual Catholics should not be forced to accept the government’s moral views, and our institutions should not be required to provide a platform for persons who oppose in word and action the mission of the Church. Yet, whatever the challenges to our faith and religious freedom, like Perpetua we can call ourselves by no other name than who we are: Christian. She and the other martyrs encourage us to remain true to our identity, to stand fast in our faith and love one another by bringing Christ’s love and truth to students, his healing to the sick and his hope to the poor.
To honor the legacy of Saints Perpetua and Felicity and all the martyrs past and present, we must make it our mission to stand with those Christians who are suffering today in lands far and near. We must stand in solidarity with them and re-echo their testimony to the world, recalling how the holy women we celebrate today proclaimed, lived and died for their faith following the example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who is our eternal life.