Of Perpetua and Women’s Bravery
In the decade since I became Catholic and took Saint Perpetua as my patroness and Confirmation name, I have celebrated this feast day with a quiet joy. I’ve dressed up, taken myself on a coffee date, attended Mass, reread the Passio, and a million other small things to celebrate the lives and deaths of these two bold, courageous, authentic, godly women. Who can blame me? I’ve never met a person who has read the Passio—the martyrdom narrative of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, the earliest extant martyrdom narrative from the Early Church, and written mostly by Perpetua herself!—who hasn’t been deeply impressed, inspired, or both. Their heroism is the stuff of Marvel movies, and I say that seriously because the Passio has even been made into a graphic novel! This year, however, I’m celebrating these two saints with some bleak backdrops: the third year of our global pandemic, ongoing racial injustice, and the recent violence in Ukraine. This year these last two backdrops have given me pause, for entirely different reasons.
I’ve always been aware that the relationship between Perpetua and Felicity was not an equal one. In the Passio, we learn that Perpetua is a well-to-do daughter of an esteemed family in Carthage whereas Felicity is an enslaved person—perhaps even living in the same household as Perpetua. I, like too many of my peers, was taught through college and into grad school that ancient slavery was “better” than modern slavery; it was “more humane” and “less racially based”. Apart from being historically questionable, the ugly truth is that while ancient slavery may have been different than slavery in the antebellum South, it was nonetheless a moral evil. And my beloved patroness was part of that system. This year, celebrating this feast compels me to reflect on the fact that I too am part of ongoing systems of injustice descended from enslavement practices. If Perpetua and Felicity were brave enough to face death, I can be brave enough to face this fact and do something about it.
This year, this feast also invites me to reflect on the fierceness of women. Over the past days, as my husband and I clean the kitchen we trade stories we’ve heard that day about the ways Ukrainians are resisting their invaders. Oftentimes, these stories revolve around women. The grandmother who delivered an absolute doozy of a comeback. The women joining the fight although only men have been formally conscripted to do so. The ones using dating apps and hotlines to fish for intel from Russians. The nurses bringing NICU babies into a makeshift bomb shelter—monitors and all—to keep them safe from bombing. These stories echo so many others from Afghanistan and Syria, where women have been performing similar acts of bravery for decades with far less worldwide attention. And it reminds me of one of the reasons that I chose Perpetua as my confirmation name: because her bravery inspires me.
This year may feel different, but it is no less a celebration. Instead, I take comfort in knowing that this 1800-year-old story still has lessons to teach us about today’s world. Faith, bravery, and courage will always do that.