Today is the feast of St. Perpetua and St. Felicity. These two women were martyred in the early 3rd century for entering the catechumenate and being baptized. Perpetua (a noblewoman) was a nursing mother and Felicity (a slave) was 8 months pregnant and eventually gave birth a day or two before she was martyred. There are many things I could talk about on this feast day including the image of female empowerment through adhering to faith in the early church, the idea that this act of martyrdom shows the consequences of the Christian commitment in light of Galatians 3:28 (as Perpetua was free and Felicity was a slave). However, as this is my first Lenten season to walk with the Elect toward baptism at the Easter vigil, I am going to talk about RCIA as apprenticeship into the Christian way of life with regard to martyrdom.
I should first say that this idea of RCIA as Christian apprenticeship is not my idea. I heard it at an excellent conference by Dr. Jerry Galipeau, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Seattle. This idea of RCIA as apprenticeship made a great deal of sense to me. By apprenticeship I mean the following; in the catechumenate we are teaching those interested in joining the church the craft of living a Christian life. What is the craft of living the Christian life? St. Perpetua and St. Felicity teach us that the craft of Christian life is the willingness to die for your adherence to your faith.
The biggest conversion I have experienced since working in the RCIA process is learning that RCIA (and really all of Christian formation) is not about teaching people how to think the Christian faith. It’s teaching Christians how to live the Christian faith in relationship with one another. Being a major book nerd this has been a hard thing for me to learn but it is the truth. RCIA is about learning how to participate in the Mass. It’s getting connected with St. Vincent de Paul to learn about to live the corporal works of mercy. It’s learning the rosary, and attending a Catholic wedding and a funeral. It’s learning about how the Knights of Columbus are an invaluable parish resource and that the tamale fundraising sale by the Latin@ community for the festivals of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Cinco de Mayo is not to be missed. (And I’m serious…those tamales are life changing)
St. Perpetua and St. Felicity provide a different model of Christian living then any of those previously described. Their model of Christian living is a model of Christian fortitude in the face of death. In their adherence to their faith and refusal to recant their baptism they show us a model of Christian faith that is a model of martyrdom. St. Perpetua and St. Felicity teach us how uphold our faith even in the face of death and even facing death as new mothers.
I think the point of St. Perpetua and St. Felicity’s martyrdom narrative is that nothing of this world (including a commitment to newborn children) is more important then steadfast adherence to faith. In these narratives it is clear that these women loved their children but it is their commitment to their faith that is (in Tillich’s language) their ultimate concern. They were willing to die knowing that their newborn children would be motherless rather then recant their faith. What does this teach us about how to live our faith? Or in other words, to what are the catechumenate being apprenticed?
The catechumenate are being apprenticed to Christian self-sacrifice before money, family, security, physical beauty, motherhood etc. The life of the Christian is a life that no longer belongs to us. To be an apprentice of the Christian way of life is to learn the craft of dying of the self. That dying might include martyrdom but most of the time that dying includes sacrificing our needs for the needs of the other. Those who go through the RCIA process learn about several things but one of the things we should be teaching in the apprenticeship process is Christian death of the self in service of the other. St. Perpetua and St. Felicity teach us that we are to remain steadfast in our faith through our actions even if the consequence of our actions is death. When we teach Christian apprenticeship, this is the craft of Christian living that we are teaching. But there is another key element to this story. St. Perpetua and St. Felicity were martyred together. In other words when we teach this way of Christian living (or Christian dying) we must always emphasize that Christian life happens in relationship with one another; we don’t do it alone, we do it as a group, formed as a group.