“Eternal Bliss” – SS Felicity and Perpetua, March 7th

Felicitas Perpetua” = eternal bliss – and also the names of the two saints the Catholic Church remembers and celebrates every year on March 7, SS Felicity and Perpetua, who were martyred together in Carthage in 203. Their story is not well known, but their names are familiar to many Catholics as among the saints that are listed in the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass. These paired names are an echo of their place in the ancient rite of adelphopoeisis (literally, “making of brothers”), the liturgical rite once used to bless same sex unions in Church.

As two women martyred together, and from the kiss of peace which they exchanged at the end, they are frequently described as a lesbian counterpart to Sergius and Bacchus. This is inaccurate. Their relationship was not primarily one of lovers in the modern sense, but of mistress and slave. But that description is also inaccurate to modern ears, as it overlooks the very different status of women,and the very different nature of marriage relationships, in Roman times. In the journal kept by Perpetua (from which we know the story), she never once even mentions her husband. It is entirely possible (even probable?) that whatever the nature of her sexual life, Perpetua’s emotional involvement with Felicity may have been more important than her relationship with her husband.

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This relationship was certainly an intense and devoted one. As such, we can recognize it as queer – and on hearing their names during the Mass, reflect on the place of same sex unions over many centuries of church history.

For more on the biographical details, see the excellent post at Jesus in Love. Here is an extract:

The details of their imprisonment are known because Perpetua kept a journal, the first known written document by a woman in Christian history. In fact, her “Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicitas, and their Companions” was so revered in North Africa that St. Augustine warned people not to treat it like the Bible. People loved the story of the two women comforting each other in jail and giving each other the kiss of peace as they met their end.

Perpetua was a 22-year-old noblewoman and a nursing mother. Felicity, her slave, gave birth to a daughter while they were in prison. Although she was married, Perpetua does not mention having a husband in the narrative.

There were arrested for their Christian faith, imprisoned together, and held onto each other in the amphitheater at Carthage shortly before their execution on March 7, 203.

The icon of Perpetua and Felicity at the top of this post was painted by Brother Robert Lentz, a Franciscan friar and world-class iconographer known for his progressive icons. It is rare to see an icon about the love between women, especially two African women. The rich reds and heart-shaped double-halo make it look like a holy Valentine.

Read more at Jesus in Love

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6 comments for ““Eternal Bliss” – SS Felicity and Perpetua, March 7th

  1. March 10, 2011 at 1:13 am

    Terry, what other same-sex couples are named in the Mass? I’d love to know. I took a quick look at the Eucharistic Prayer, but I couldn’t identify the couples without doing more research… or maybe there are multiple versions of the Eucharistic Prayer.

    • March 12, 2011 at 10:40 am

      Kitt, here are some that are named as pairs in Eucharistic Prayer I: Peter and Paul, Simon and Jude, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian.
      I confess that in writing this post, I was working from memory, and now find that Felicity and Perpetua are not there, although there names were familiar to me from Mass years before I ever heard of gay or lesbian saints. Perhaps they are in other versions of the EP, or only in earlier versions. I don’t know, without more research.

      The point about these couples is not that they were clearly known to be same sex couples in our modern sense, but that they featured as pairs in the various versions of the rites of same sex unions described by Boswell. To that extent, they are a reminder to us of the place of celebrating same sex unions in church history.

      I can see that I will have to re-read Boswell, and write specifically on this topic.

      • Bart
        March 7, 2012 at 7:51 am

         Felicity and Perpetua are also mentioned in Eucharistic Prayer I. They’re in the second list of saints, recited towards the end of the prayer.

        • March 7, 2012 at 8:38 am

          That was fast, Bart – thanks for sorting out my confusion. When I placed this last year, I wrote that they were listed in the EP, then when Kitt placed here query, I couldn’t find them. Somewhere I found a reference that seemed to imply that they (and others) had been removed in a revision some years ago.
          Your pointer has helped me to locate the reference, but its not as I remember it. My childhood memories definitely link them as a pair (and also “Phillip and Bartholomew”). Am I misremembering?

          • Bart
            March 7, 2012 at 9:39 am

             Well, as far as I can see (and these days I check the Latin source so as not to be hounded by the Temple Police), the only saints that are explicitly paired (i.e., by using “and”) are: Peter & Paul, Simon & Jude (Thaddeus), John & Paul, Cosmas & Damian all of whom are in the first list. The reason why couplets seem to have been formed out of pairs of names is probably because the list is divided into a number of lines in the Roman Canon, with each line being a pair of names, thus:
            John the Baptist, Stephen,
            Matthias, Barnabas

            Felicity, Perpetua,
            Agatha, Lucy

            Hagiography, as well as the history behind the composition of the text of the Canon, will (in all likelihood) reveal that there’s a reason behind each and every pair of names. What IS stated in the Canon is that all the persons in the 2 lists are apostles and martyrs.

          • March 7, 2012 at 10:23 am

            Thanks, again.

            Now, there’s work to be done, uncovering those reasons behind those pairings.

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