Saints Perpetua and Felicity and their companions lived in the late second and early third century, during a time of intense persecution of Christians by Emperor Septimius Severus. Perpetua was a young, beautiful, well-educated, noblewoman of Carthage and mother of an infant son. Her father was a pagan and her mother a Christian. Her father pleaded with her to deny the faith and save her life, but she refused and was imprisoned with her baby at age 22. She wrote “When my father in his affection for me was trying to turn me from my purpose by arguments and thus weaken my faith, I said to him, ‘Do you see this vessel—waterpot or whatever it may be? Can it be called by any other name than what it is?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘So also I cannot call myself by any other name than what I am—a Christian.’” Perpetua wrote the beginning of a chronicle of their executions, which was finished by eyewitnesses.
Despite threats of persecution and death, Perpetua, Felicity (a slavewoman and expectant mother) and three companions refused to renounce their Christian faith. For their unwillingness, all were sent to the public games in the amphitheater. Felicity gave birth to her baby just three days before the games. Perpetua and Felicity were beheaded, and the others killed by beasts.
During the so-called games, the saints went peacefully to their fate. As with so many martyr’s accounts, it is written that they hardly felt the pain of their torments. The eyewitness writes: “Without being asked they went where the people wanted them to go; but first they kissed one another, to complete their witness with the customary kiss of peace. The others stood motionless and received the deathblow in silence, especially Saturus, who had gone up first and was first to die; he was helping Perpetua. But Perpetua, that she might experience the pain more deeply, rejoiced over her broken body and guided the shaking hand of the inexperienced gladiator to her throat. Such a woman – one before whom the unclean spirit trembled – could not perhaps have been killed, had she herself not willed it.”
Today’s Gospel parable, of course, foretells the death of Jesus symbolized by the son of the landowner. Just as the tenants did not respect the landowner’s son, many did not respect Jesus and he went to his death. Those martyrs, like Perpetua and Felicity and their companions, join in the sufferings of Jesus in a very real way. They call us to give of ourselves as deeply as we are able so that we might join in Christ’s suffering and death – and thus his glory – also. As the eyewitness said of the martyrs, “Bravest and happiest martyrs! You were called and chosen for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” May we find ourselves caught up in that glory too.