It has never been too much task for the chroniclers of the history of the Catholic Church to highlight the connection the world’s oldest Christian organization has with Africa and Africans.
Such needs sit with questions of how black identities are mirrored in or magnified by the church.
The epic of Perpetua and Felicity comes into this light. Not much has been pieced together by historians on the 2nd-century ladies.
We do not even know the actual years Perpetua and Felicity were born or when they died. This is understandably difficult due to the obvious reason that no one was writing with us in mind 2,000 years ago.
Much of what we know about the ladies is thanks to biased historians such as Eusebius and Tertullian who lived centuries later.
However, there exists a text known as Passio SS Perpetuae et Felicitatis or The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. This is believed to have been written by Perpetua. If this is true, Perpetua is probably the first known female chronicler of Christianity.
The Passion is a narrative of the lives of Perpetua and Felicity. It reads like a first-person diary of the personal lives of Perpetua and those around her.
But the text is also indicative of the sociopolitics of that time.
The story is set in Carthage, North Africa and in modern-day Tunisia. The two women are also thought to hail from this area.
Christianity was still in its infancy at the time and worshippers of Jesus Christ were considered treacherous apostates. People of different faiths understood their contrasts but together, they hated the Christians.
We are told by Eusebius that by the order of emperor Septimus Severus, a man also born on the African continent, all subjects were not permitted to worship the Christian way.
Those who went against the decree would be subjected to dire consequences. The fierceness of the prosection against Christians is to be seen in the fact that even those of noble birth were not spared.
Perpetua was of noble birth and her father was a wealthy Carthaginian. Felicity was Perpetua’s slave.
Perpetua began writing her diary when she and Felicity, along with three others, were arrested for apostasy.
As the Catholic apologist site, New Advent, puts it: “The sufferings of the prison life, the attempts of Perpetua’s father to induce her to apostatize, the vicissitudes of the martyrs before their execution, the visions of Saturus and Perpetua in their dungeons, were all faithfully committed to writing by the last two.”
For their faith, the two were sentenced to death in the most cruel way. They were let into an arena, the scene of ancient bloodsport and along with others, including actual criminals, Perpetua and Felicity had wild animals released against them to battle.
The two women are now considered martyrs of the Catholic church and in commemoration of their faith, the church celebrates a feast every March 7.