Category Archives: March

Mar 22 – St Nicholas Owen, SJ, (d. 1606) – Religious, Martyr, Artist, Builder of Hiding Places for Priests

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Nicholas, familiarly known as “Little John,” was small in stature but big in the esteem of his fellow Jesuits.  Born at Oxford, this humble artisan saved the lives of many priests and laypersons in England during the penal times (1559-1829), when a series of statutes punished Catholics for the practice of their faith.

Over a period of about 20 years he used his skills to build secret hiding places for priests throughout the country. His work, which he did completely by himself as both architect and builder, was so good that time and time again priests in hiding were undetected by raiding parties. He was a genius at finding, and creating, places of safety: subterranean passages, small spaces between walls, impenetrable recesses. At one point he was even able to mastermind the escape of two Jesuits from the Tower of London. Whenever Nicholas set out to design such hiding places, he began by receiving the Holy Eucharist, and he would turn to God in prayer throughout the long, dangerous construction process.

Nicholas enrolled as an apprentice to the Oxford joiner William Conway on the feast of the Purification of Blessed Mary, February 2nd, 1577. He was bound in indenture and as an apprentice for a period of eight years and the papers of indenture state that he was the son of Walter Owen, citizen of Oxford, carpenter. Oxford at the time was strongly Catholic. The Statute of artificers determined that sons should follow the profession into which they were born. If he completed his apprenticeship it would have been in 1585. We know from Fr. John Gerard, SJ, a biographer of Nicholas’, that he began building hides in 1588 and continued over a period of eighteen years when he could have been earning good money satisfying the contemporary demand for well-made solid furniture.

St Henry Garnet, SJ, Jesuit Superior in England at the time, in a letter dated 1596 writes of a carpenter of singular faithfulness and skill who has traveled through almost the entire kingdom and, without charge, has made for Catholic priests hiding places where they might shelter the fury of heretical searchers. If money is offered him by way of payment he gives it to his two brothers; one of them is a priest, the other a layman in prison for his faith.

Owen was only slightly taller than a dwarf, and suffered from a hernia caused by a horse falling on him some years earlier. Nevertheless, his work often involved breaking through thick stonework; and to minimize the likelihood of betrayal he often worked at night, and always alone. The number of hiding-places he constructed will never be known. Due to the ingenuity of his craftsmanship, some may still be undiscovered.

After many years at his unusual task, he entered the Society of Jesus and served as a lay brother, although—for very good reasons—his connection with the Jesuits was kept secret. After a number of narrow escapes, he himself was finally caught in 1594. Despite protracted torture, he refused to disclose the names of other Catholics. After being released following the payment of a ransom, “Little John” went back to his work. He was arrested again in 1606. This time he was subjected to horrible tortures, suffering an agonizing death. The jailers tried suggesting that he had confessed and committed suicide, but his heroism and sufferings soon were widely known.

Why should priests need hiding places? From 1585 it was considered treason, punishable by a traitor’s death, to be found in England if a priest had been ordained abroad. Of Owen, the modern edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints says: “Perhaps no single person contributed more to the preservation of Catholic religion in England in penal times”.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in earlier centuries often called the Gunpowder Treason Plot or the Jesuit Treason, was a failed assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.  The last hope for the Catholics collapsed when peace was made with Spain. They had hoped that Catholic Spain, as part of the bargain, would have secured freedom for them to practice their religion. Relief of Catholics was discussed, but James said that his Protestant subjects wouldn’t stand for it.  So there was to be no relief. In fact the screw was tightened again.

Anglican bishops were ordered to excommunicate Catholics who would not attend Anglican services – this meant that no sale or purchase by them was valid, no property  could be passed on by deed or by will.  The level of persecution was higher than ever it had been under Elizabeth.

In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, 1605, the result of the frustration of a group of young Catholics when, after dropping hints of toleration, James I made it clear that there would be no relaxation of anti – Catholic legislation, the hunt for priests accused of complicity centered on Hindlip House. This had been provided with hiding places by Nicholas Owen which proved undetectable. He himself was there and when he emerged after four days of hiding he was arrested.

At daybreak on Monday, 20th November, 1605, Hindlip House was surrounded by 100 men. They began to rip the house to pieces.  In the dark, early on Thursday morning, two men, Owen and Bl Ralph Ashley, SJ, another lay-brother and cook, were spotted stealing along a gallery.  They said they were no longer able to conceal themselves, having had but one apple between them for four days. They would not give their names.

It was hardly likely that Nicholas Owen, of all people, would not have been better provided.  They had twice been tipped off during the previous week that a search was imminent. Possibly they hoped that in giving themselves up they would distract attention from the two priests still in hiding, Fr Garnet, SJ, and Fr Oldcorne, SJ, still hiding in Hindlip House, even to being mistaken for them.  It was a ruse that had worked before. It didn’t work now.  The search was intensified.  The priests were in a hide which had been supplied with a feeding tube from an adjoining bedroom, but the hiding place had not been designed to be lived in for a week. After 8 days they emerged, were arrested and identified. All four were taken to London.

Nicholas Owen, SJ, had been in prison before; he had been tortured before.  He was now taken to the torture room, for the first time, on the 26th of February 1606. His identity as a hide-builder seemed to have been betrayed. “We will try to get from him by coaxing, if he is willing to contract for his life, an excellent booty of priests”.  Realizing just whom they had caught, and his value, Secretary of State, Robert Cecil exulted: “It is incredible, how great was the joy caused by his arrest… knowing the great skill of Owen in constructing hiding places, and the innumerable quantity of dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests all through England.”

On March 2nd it was announced that Nicholas Owen had committed suicide.  People were simply incredulous. It would have been impossible for one who had been tortured as he had.  The Venetian Ambassador reported home:  “Public opinion holds that Owen died of the tortures inflicted on him, which were so severe that they deprived him not only of his strength but of the power to move any part of his body”.

It seems certain that the suicide story was a fiction concocted by a Government deeply embarrassed to find itself with a corpse in its custody as a result of torture.

For those few grim days in February, writes a historian, as the Government tried to break him, the fate of almost every English Catholic lay in Owen’s hands.

In life he had saved them, in death he would too: not a single name escaped him.

In opposition to English law, which forbade the torture of a man suffering from a hernia, as he was, he was racked day after day, six hours at a time. He died under torture without betraying any secret – and he knew enough to bring down the entire network of covert Catholics in England.

“Most brutal of all was the treatment given to Nicholas Owen, better known to the recusants as Little John. Since he had a hernia caused by the strain of his work, as well as a crippled leg, he should not have been physically tortured in the first place. But Little John, unlike many of those interrogated, did have valuable information about the hiding places he had constructed; if he had talked, all too many priests would have been snared ‘like partridges in a net’. In this good cause the government was prepared to ignore the dictates of the law and the demands of common humanity. A leading Councillor, on hearing his name, was said to have exclaimed: “Is he taken that knows all the secret places? I am very glad of that. We will have a trick for him.”

The trick was the prolonged use of the manacles, an exquisitely horrible torture for one of Owen’s ruptured state. He was originally held in the milder prison of the Marshalsea, where it was hoped that other priests would try to contact him, but Little John was ‘too wise to give any advantage’ and spent his time safely and silently at prayer. In the Tower he was brought to make two confessions on 26 February and 1 March.

In the first one, he denied more or less everything. By the time of the second confession, long and ghastly sessions in the manacles produced some results (his physical condition may be judged by the fact that his stomach had to be bound together with an iron plate, and even that was not very effective for long). Little John admitted to attending Father Garnet at White Webbs and elsewhere, that he had been at Coughton during All Saints visit, and other details of his service and itinerary.  However, all of this was known already. Little John never gave up one single detail of the hiding places he had spent his adult life constructing for the safety of his co-religionists.

The lay brother died early in the morning of 2 March. He died directly as a result of his ordeal and in horrible, lingering circumstances. By popular standards of his day, this was a stage of cruelty too far. The government acknowledged this in its own way by putting out the story that Owen had ripped himself open with the knife given him to eat his meat – while his keeper was conveniently looking elsewhere – rather than face renewed bouts of torture. Yet Owen’s keeper had told a relative who wanted Owen to make a list of his needs that his prisoner’s hands were so useless that he could not even feed himself, let alone write.

The story of the suicide was so improbable that neither Owen’s enemies nor his friends, so well acquainted with his character over so many years, believed it. Suicide was a mortal sin in the Catholic Church, inviting damnation, and it was unthinkable that a convinced Catholic like Nicholas Owen should have imperiled his immortal soul in this manner.”

Father Gerard wrote of him:  “I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.”  -Autobiography of an Elizabethan

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-statue of St Nicholas Owen, SJ

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-St Nicholas Owen, SJ, being tortured in the Tower of London, 1606. Engraver Melchior Kusell“Societas Jesu ad sanguinis et vitae profusionem militans”

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-engraving, “Torture of Blessed Edward Oldcorne, SJ & St Nicholas Owen, SJ, by Gaspar Bouttats, National Portrait Gallery, London.  The Jesuit hanging from his wrists with weights tied to his feet is suffering the “Topcliffe rack”.  This method of torture was ultimately what killed Nicholas  Owen, as due to his hernia, “his bowels gushed out with his life”.

Catholic stage magicians who practice Gospel Magic, a performance type promoting Christian values and morals, consider St. Nicholas Owen the Patron of Illusionists and Escapologists due to his facility at using “trompe l’oeil”, “to deceive the eye”, when creating his hideouts and the fact that he engineered an escape from the Tower of London.  Many Catholic builders, if they are familiar with him, may say a prayer of intercession to St Nicholas Owen prior to beginning a new project.

“May the blood of these Martyrs be able to heal the great wound inflicted upon God’s Church by reason of the separation of the Anglican Church from the Catholic Church. Is it not one — these Martyrs say to us — the Church founded by Christ? Is not this their witness? Their devotion to their nation gives us the assurance that on the day when — God willing — the unity of the faith and of Christian life is restored, no offence will be inflicted on the honour and sovereignty of a great country such as England.”

–from the Homily of Pope Paul VI at the canonization of Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, including St. Nicholas Owen, SJ, 25 October 1970.

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-Saint Nicholas Owen, SJ, Felt Softie by SaintlySilver on Etsy, $19.00

Love,
Matthew

Mar 10 – St John Ogilvie, SJ, (1579-1615) – Priest, Martyr of Scotland

John Ogilvie’s noble Scottish family was partly Catholic and partly Presbyterian. His father raised him as a Calvinist, sending him to the continent to be educated. There John became interested in the popular debates going on between Catholic and Calvinist scholars.

Confused by the arguments of Catholic scholars whom he sought out, he turned to Scripture. Two texts particularly struck him: “God wills all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,” 1 Tim 2:4, and “Come to me all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you” Mt 11:28.

Slowly, rejecting Calvinist predestination, John came to see that the Catholic Church could embrace all kinds of people. Among these, he noted, he was particularly impressed with the faith of many Catholic martyrs. He decided to become Catholic and was received into the Church at Louvain, Belgium, in 1596 at the age of 17.

John continued his studies, first with the Benedictines, then as a student at the Jesuit College at Olmutz. He joined the Jesuits and for the next 10 years underwent their rigorous intellectual and spiritual training.

Ordained a priest in France in 1610, he met two Jesuits who had just returned from Scotland after suffering arrest and imprisonment. They saw little hope for any successful work there in view of the tightening of the penal laws. But a fire had been lit within John. For the next two and a half years he pleaded to be missioned there.

It was a time of great persecution of Catholicism in Scotland. “Send only those,” wrote the Earl of Angus to the Jesuit General, “who wish for this mission and are strong enough to bear the heat of the day, for they will be in exceeding danger.”

Wholesale massacres of Catholics had taken place in the past, but by this point the hunters concentrated on priests and those who attended Mass. The Jesuits were determined to minister to the oppressed Catholic laity, but when captured, they were tortured for information, then hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Having grown a beard, learned a little about horse breeding, John was sent by his superiors, and secretly entered Scotland posing as a horse trader or a soldier, named ‘John Watson’, returning from the wars in Europe.

Unable to do significant work among the relatively few Catholics in Scotland, John made his way back to Paris to consult his superiors. Rebuked for having left his assignment in Scotland, he was sent back.

He warmed to the task before him and had some success in making converts and in secretly serving Scottish Catholics. But he was soon betrayed by a false Catholic, arrested and brought before the court.

His trial dragged on until he had been without food for 26 hours. He was imprisoned and deprived of sleep for eight days and nights. For eight days and nights he was dragged around, kept awake being prodded with sharp sticks and having his hair pulled out. His legs were crushed.  His finger nails were pulled out with pliers.  Still, he refused to reveal the names of Catholics or to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the king in spiritual affairs. He underwent a second and third trial but held firm.

At his final trial he assured his judges: “In all that concerns the king, I will be slavishly obedient; if any attack his temporal power, I will shed my last drop of blood for him. But in the things of spiritual jurisdiction which a king unjustly seizes I cannot and must not obey.”  “Your threats cheer me; I mind them no more than the cackling of geese,” he told his captors. Asked if he feared to die Father John replied, “No more than you do to dine.”

After three trials he was convicted of treason for being loyal to the Pope, and denying the king’s supremacy in spiritual matters. Finally taken to the scaffold, Fr. John’s last words were “If there be here any hidden Roman Catholics, let them pray for me but the prayers of heretics I will not have”.  His final prayers were a litany of the saints in Latin and then in English.

Condemned to death as a traitor, he was faithful to the end, even when on the scaffold he was offered his freedom and a fine living if he would deny his faith. After he was pushed from the stairs and began to hang, he threw his concealed rosary beads out into the crowd. The tale is told that one of his enemies caught them and subsequently became a lifelong devout Roman Catholic.  St John Ogilvie, SJ, was hanged and disemboweled 10 March 1615 at the age of 36.

The customary beheading and quartering were omitted owing to undisguised popular sympathy, and his body was hurriedly buried in the churchyard of Glasgow cathedral, in a place reserved for criminals.  No relic of his body has survived.  His courage in prison and in his martyrdom were reported throughout Scotland.

John Ogilvie was canonized in 1976, becoming the first Scottish saint since 1250.

John came of age when neither Catholics nor Protestants were willing to tolerate one another. Turning to Scripture, he found words that enlarged his vision.

Ogilvie (Ref 04)

Prayer to St John Ogilvie, SJ

God our Father, Fountain of all blessing, we thank You for the countless graces that come to us in answer to the prayers of Your saints.  With great confidence we ask You in the name of Your Son and through the prayers of St John Ogilvie, SJ to help us in all our needs.

Lord Jesus, You chose Your servant St John Ogilvie, SJ to be Your faithful witness to the spiritual authority of the chief shepherd of your flock.  Keep Your people always one in mind and heart, in communion with Benedict our Pope, and all the bishops of your Church.  May Your ordained ministers always be exemplars of Your virtue, humility, service, self-sacrifice and love as they tend Your flock.

Holy Spirit, You gave St John Ogilvie light to know Your truth,  wisdom to defend it, and courage to die for it.  Through his prayers and example bring our country into the unity and peace of Christ’s kingdom.  Amen.

Love,
Matthew

Mar 17 – The Children of Lir


The Children of Lir (1914) by John Duncan, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Please click on the image for greater detail.

If you ever come to visit Kelly and I, and you look closely…no, not at the dust and general disarray, but look closely and you may see a swan motif.  These are the Children of Lir.  Mara will soon be able to understand stories. We will tell her of the Children of Lir.

Long ago, in Ireland, there lived a king called Lir. He lived with his wife and four children: Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. They lived in a castle in the middle of a forest. When Lir’s wife died they were all very sad. After a few years Lir got married again. He married a jealous wife called Aoife.  Aoife thought that Lir loved his children more than he loved her.  Aoife hated the children.  Soon she thought of a plan to get rid of the children.

One summer’s day Aoife took the children to swim in a lake near the castle. The children were really happy to be playing in the water.  Suddenly Aoife took out a magic wand.  There was a flash of light and the children were nowhere to be seen.  All there was to be seen was four beautiful swans, with their feathers as white as snow.

Aoife said, “I have put you under a spell. You will be swans for nine hundred years,” she cackled. “You will spend three hundred years in Lough Derravaragh, three hundred years in the Sea of Moyle, and three hundred years in the waters of Inish Glora,” Aoife said. She also said, “You will remain swans for nine hundred years until you hear the ring of a Christian bell.”

She went back to the castle and told Lir that his children had drowned. Lir was so sad he started crying. He rushed down to the lake and saw no children. He saw only four beautiful swans.

One of them spoke to him. It was Fionnuala who spoke to him. She told him what Aoife had done to them. Lir got very angry and turned Aoife into an ugly moth. When Lir died the children were very sad, but the curse of Aoife would not be lifted.  When the time came they moved to the Sea of Moyle.

Soon the time came for their final journey. When they reached Inish Glora they were very tired.  They were nine hundred years old. Early one morning they heard the sound of a Christian bell. They were so happy that they were human again. The monk (some even say it was St. Patrick himself) sprinkled holy water on them and then Fionnuala put her arms around her brothers and then the four of them fell on the ground. The monk buried them in one grave. That night he dreamed he saw four swans flying up through the clouds. He knew the children of Lir were with their mother and father.

(please click on the image for greater detail)

A statue of the Children of Lir resides in the Garden of Remembrance, Parnell Square in Dublin, Ireland. It symbolizes the rebirth of the Irish nation following 900 years of struggle for independence from Britain, much as the swans were “reborn” following 900 years of being cursed.

The Garden of Remembrance (An Gairdín Cuimhneacháin) is a memorial garden in Dublin dedicated to the memory of “all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish Freedom”.

In 1976, a contest was held to find a poem which could express the appreciation and inspiration of this struggle for freedom.  The winner, “We Saw a Vision” by Liam Mac Uistin, is inscribed in the stone wall surrounding the Garden of Remembrance in Irish, English, and French.

In the darkness of despair we saw a vision,
We lit the light of hope,
And it was not extinguished,
In the desert of discouragement we saw a vision,
We planted the tree of valour,
And it blossomed
In the winter of bondage we saw a vision,
We melted the snow of lethargy,
And the river of resurrection flowed from it.
We sent our vision aswim like a swan on the river,
The vision became a reality,
Winter became summer,
Bondage became freedom,
And this we left to you as your inheritance.
O generation of freedom remember us,
The generation of the vision.

“Saoirse” is the Irish word for freedom.

Love,
Matthew

Beannachtaí na Féile Padraig oraibh!!!
Tha mo bhàta-foluaimein loma-làn easgannan = my hovercraft is full of eels (from a Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit).

Mar 23 – St Turibius of Mongrovejo (1538-1606), Archbishop & Great Catholic Reformer

One of the first saints of the New World, the Spanish bishop St. Turibius of Mongrovejo (1538-1606) was born in Mayorga, Spain, and educated as a lawyer. He was such a brilliant scholar that he became professor of law at the highly reputed University of Salamanca and eventually became chief judge, the Grand Inquisitor, of the Inquisition at Granada under King Phillip II of Spain.

In 1580 the archbishopric of Lima, capital of Spain’s colony in Peru, became vacant. Religious and political leaders agreed that Turibius’ holiness made him the ideal choice for this position, even though he protested that, as a layman, he was ineligible. It was felt he was the one person with the strength of character and holiness of spirit to heal the scandals that had infected that area.  Turibius cited all the canons that forbade giving laymen ecclesiastical dignities.  His protests were overruled; he was ordained a priest and bishop, and then sent to Peru, where he found colonialism at its worst. The Spanish conquerors were guilty of every sort of oppression of the native population. Abuses among the clergy were flagrant, and he devoted his energies (and suffering) to this area first.

The 450K sq km (180K sq mi) diocese of Lima was geographically isolated and morally lax.  He began the long and arduous visitation of an immense archdiocese, studying the language, staying two or three days in each place, often with neither bed nor food. In all he would make three visitations of his diocese, the first lasting seven years.  Turibius made a point of learning Native American languages; this helped him teach and minister to his people, and also made him a very successful missionary.

He confessed every morning to his chaplain, and celebrated Mass with intense fervor. Among those to whom he gave the Sacrament of Confirmation was St. Rose of Lima, and possibly St. Martin de Porres. After 1590 he had the help of another great missionary, St. Francis Solanus.

As bishop, he denounced exploitation of Native Americans by Spanish nobles and even clergy; he imposed many reforms, in spite of considerable opposition. He built roads, founded schools, churches, hospitals, and convents.  Turibius organized a seminary in 1591–the first in the Western hemisphere–and his pastoral example inspired reforms in other dioceses under Spanish administration. He served as Archbishop of Lima for twenty-six years, dying in 1606.

“Time is not our own, and we must give a strict account of it.”
-St Turibius of Mongrovejo

Prayer

Lord, through the apostolic work of Saint Turibius
and his unwavering love of truth,
You helped Your church to grow.
May Your chosen people continue to grow
in faith and holiness.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.

 
Love,
Matthew

Mar 6 – St Colette of Corbie, PCC, (1381-1447), Great Catholic Reformer & Healer of the Great Western Schism

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Colette, baptised Nicolette Boilet, was born in Corbie, France.  A carpenter’s daughter whose parents were near 60 at her birth. Colette was orphaned at age 17, and left in the care of a Benedictine abbot. Her guardian wanted her to marry, but Colette was drawn to religious life. She initially tried to join the Beguines and Benedictines, but failed in her vocation, feeling the life of those communities not strict enough to her liking.

At 21 she began to follow the Third Order Rule of the Franciscans and became an anchoress, a woman walled into a room whose only opening was a window into a church.

She had visions in which Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) ordered her to restore the Rule of Saint Clare to its original severity. When she hesitated, she was struck blind for three days and mute for three more; she saw this as a sign to take action.  After four years of prayer and penance in this cell, she left it.

Colette began her reform during the time of the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) when three men claimed to be pope and thus divided Western Christianity. The 15th century in general was a very difficult one for the Western Church. Abuses long neglected cost the Church dearly in the following century; the prayers of Colette and her followers may have lessened the Church’s troubles in the 16th century. In any case, Colette’s reform indicated the entire Church’s need to follow Christ more closely.

Colette tried to follow her mission by explaining it, but had no success. Realizing she needed more authority behind her words, she walked to Nice, France, barefoot and clothed in a habit of patches, to meet Peter de Luna, acknowledged by the French as the schismatic Pope Benedict XIII. He professed her a Poor Clare, and was so impressed that he made her superioress of all convents of Minoresses that she might reform or found, and a missioner to Franciscan friars and tertiaries.

She travelled from convent to convent, meeting opposition, abuse, slander, and was even accused of sorcery. Eventually she made some progress, especially in Savoy, where her reform gained sympathizers and recruits. This reform passed to Burgundy in France, Flanders in Belgium and Spain.

Colette helped Saint Vincent Ferrer, O.P. heal the papal schism. She founded seventeen convents; one branch of the Poor Clares is still known as the Colettines.  Her sisters were known for their poverty—they rejected any fixed income—and for their perpetual fast. Colette’s reform movement spread to other countries and is still thriving today.

Colette was known for a deep devotion to Christ’s Passion with an appreciation and care for animals. Colette fasted every Friday, meditating on the Passion. After receiving Holy Communion, she would fall into ecstasies for hours. She foretold the date of her own death.  Colette was canonized in 1807.

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In her spiritual testament, Colette told her sisters: “We must faithfully keep what we have promised. If through human weakness we fail, we must always without delay arise again by means of holy penance, and give our attention to leading a good life and to dying a holy death. May the Father of all mercy, the Son by His Holy Passion, and the Holy Spirit, source of peace, sweetness and love, fill us with their consolation. Amen.”

Love,
Matthew

Mar 7 – Sts Perpetua & Felicity (181-203 AD), Martyrs


-St Perpetua, pray for us!

It’s long, but it’s Lent.  I LOOOVE strong women; and in my life, have been so impressed with the majority of the opposite sex I have encountered, I, conservative in many other respects, consider myself a moderate feminist.  Women, I believe, are the backbone of civilization, and have been and continue to be its salvation on many occasions, and certainly instrumental to the Lord and His Work, then and now, as scripture and our own experience clearly tells us.

No saints were more universally honored in the early Church than Perpetua & Felicity.  They are honored to this day by Christians, partly due to the fact that the account of their martyrdom is so precise.  We know the details of Perpetua’s and Felicity’s imprisonment because Perpetua kept a diary which is contained in the Vatican archives to this day.

Vivia Perpetua (“life eternal”) was a noblewoman in the North African city of Carthage, in modern Tunisia.  She was the 22 year old wife of a man in a good position in the city and the mother of an infant boy.  She, her mother and two brothers were all Christians, but her father was a pagan.

Felicity (“happiness/bliss”) was a slavewoman who accepted Christianity.  When she was imprisoned she was an expectant mother.  We don’t know as much about her as we do about Perpetua and only what was in Perpetua’s diary.

Perpetua and Felicity were among a group of five Christians rounded up in Carthage on the orders of the Emperor, Septimius Severus.  The others were two free men, Saturnius and Secundulus, and a slave, Revocatus.  They were later joined by another man, Saturus, who was apparently their instructor in the faith, their catechist, and who chose to share their punishment.  At first they were lodged in a private house under heavy guard, but later were moved to a prison.

Perpetua wrote in her diary that her father tried to save her life by urging her to renounce Christianity.  “I said to my father, ‘Do you see this vessel – water pot 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.’  Then my father, provoked by the word ‘Christian,’ threw himself on me as if he would pluck out my eyes, but he only shook me, and in fact was vanquished…Then I thanked God for the relief of being, for a few days, parted from my father.”

During her imprisonment, Perpetua’s greatest concern was for her baby.  She wrote:  “A few days later we were lodged in the prison, and I was much frightened, because I had never known such darkness.  What a day of horror!  Terrible heat, owing to the crowds (imprisoned with us)!  Rough treatment by the soldiers!  To crown all I was tormented with anxiety for my baby.  But Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons, who ministered to us, paid for us (by bribing the guards) to be moved for a few hours to a better part of the prison and we obtained some relief.”

Then Perpetua said her baby was brought to her and she nursed it, “for already he was faint for want of food.”  She wrote that she spoke to her mother about her baby and commended her son to her and to her brother.  “For many days I suffered such anxieties, but I obtained leave for my child to remain in prison with me, and when relieved of my trouble and distress for him, I quickly recovered my health.  My prison suddenly became a palace to me and I would rather have been there than anywhere else.”

By this time Perpetua and her fellow prisoners were determined that they would suffer death before they would renounce their faith.  However, Perpetua’s father did not give up his attempts to save her life.  “Daughter,” he said, “pity my white hairs!  Pity your father, if I deserve you should call me father, if I have loved you more than your brothers!  Make me not a reproach to mankind!  Look on your mother and your mother’s sister, look on your son who cannot live after you are gone.  Forget your pride; do not make us all wretched!  None of us will ever speak freely again if calamity strikes you.”  Perpetua wrote in her diary in response,”He alone of all my kindred would not have joy at my martyrdom.”

The next day, Perpetua’s trial began at the forum in Carthage.  The prisoners were placed on a platform.  The judge was Hilarion, procurator of the province.  The others were questioned first and all confessed their faith.

When it was Perpetua’s turn, her father suddenly appeared with her infant son.  He implored his daughter to “have pity on the child.”  Then Hilarion joined with her father and said, “Spare your father’s white hairs.  Spare the tender years of your child.  Offer sacrifice for the prosperity of the emperor.”

Perpetua replied, “No!”

Hilarion asked, “Are you a Christian?”

Pepetua answered him, “Yes, I am.”

At that her father ran up on the platform and tried to drag her down the steps, but Hilarion gave the order that he should be beaten off.  One of the guards struck him with a rod.

Perpetua said, “I felt as much as if I myself had been struck, so deeply did I grieve to see my father treated thus in his old age.”

Hilarion then passed sentence, condemning them to the wild beasts.  He had Saturus, Saturninus and Revocatus scourged (Secundulus seems to have died in prison before the trial), and Perpetua and Felicity beaten on the face.

Hilarion then ordered that they be kept for the gladitorial shows which were to be given for the soldiers on the birthday festival of Geta, the young prince and son of the Emperor.  The prisoners returned to their cells, rejoicing.

The attitude of the prisoners resulted in many conversions.  One of them was their jailer, Pudens, who did everything he could for them.  The day before the games, they were given the usual last meal, which the prisoners tried to make an “agape”(Greek for love, used by Christians to denote Christian love, in contrast to “eros””ἔρως”, or “philia””φιλία”) meal, or Eucharistic meal.  They sang psalms, prayed and spoke to those around them of the judgments of God and of their own joy in their sufferings.  (Acts 5:41-42)

On the day of their martyrdom, they marched from their cells to the amphitheater with cheerful looks and graceful bearing.  The three men walked ahead and Perpetua and Felicity followed them, walking side by side, the noblewoman and the slave.  At the gates of the amphitheater the attendants tried to force the men to put on the robes of the priests of Saturn and the women the dress symbolic of the goddess Ceres, but they all resisted and the officer allowed them to enter the arena clad as they were.

As they entered the arena, Perpetua was singing.  The three men called out warnings of the coming vengeance of God to the bystanders and to Hilarion, as they walked beneath his balcony.

Perpetua was the first to be attacked.  When she looked up, she saw Felicity on the ground and reached out her hand to lift her up.  Both stood up, and were then ordered to the gate called Sanavaria (where those not killed by the beasts were executed by the gladiators).  There Perpetua was welcomed by a catechumen called Rusticus.  Perpetua, rousing herself as if from sleep (she had been deeply in spiritual ecstasy), began to look around.  To everyone’s amazement, she said:  ‘When are we going to be led to the beasts?’  When she heard that it had already happened, she at first did not believe it until she saw the marks of violence on her body and clothing.

Then she beckoned to her brother and the catechumen, and addressed them in these words:  ‘Stand firm in faith, love one another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our suffering.’

Saturus, too, in another gate, encouraged the soldier Pudens, saying:  “Here I am, and just as I thought and foretold I have not yet felt any wild beast.  Now believe with your whole heart…Right at the end of the games, when Saturus was thrown to the leopard, he was in fact covered with so much blood from one bite, that the crowd in the amphitheater cried out to him, “Washed and saved!  Washed and saved!”  Then Saturus said to Pudens, “Farewell, and remember your faith as well as me; do not let these things frighten you; let them rather strengthen you.”  At that moment, Saturus asked Pudens for the ring from Pudens’ finger.  Soaking it in his wound, he returned it Pudens as a remembrance and a keepsake.

The mortally wounded martyrs were led to the middle of the amphitheater to end their suffering and receive the death blow from the gladiators.  They gave each other the kiss of peace.  The gladiator ordered to kill Perpetua was young and inexperienced.  Perpetua steadied his shaking hand and guided his sword to her throat.

Before such a woman, the unclean spirit trembles.

Prayer to Sts Perpetua & Felicity

Father, Your love gave the Saints Perpetua and Felicity
courage to suffer a cruel martyrdom.
By their prayers, help us to grow in love of You.

We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Love,
Matthew