November 23: Become a family of saints like St. Felicitas’ family

Saint Felicitatis and the heads of her seven sons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On this date, the Church commemorates Saint Felicitas, a Catholic woman who died a martyr and was buried in the Cemetery of Maximus in Rome during the early centuries of the Church. That much is fairly certain.

But there are other traditions associated with Saint Felicitas (also called Felicity). One tradition says that she was a wealthy widow in ancient Rome and that she had seven sons. When arrested for being Catholic, her sons all refused to renounce their faith and were beheaded in front of their mother, who was martyred last of all. Hence the image above, which vividly shows Felicitas proudly displaying the heads of her faithful sons. Some traditions even cite the names of the seven sons. Other traditions tell us that the martyrdoms of these eight faithful Catholics occurred in the year 165 under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

There are some who argue today that the tradition of the seven sons dying as martyrs with their mother is, at best, unproven, or at worst, a Catholic fiction based on the heroic story of Jewish faithfulness given in 2 Maccabees, chapter 7. In this passage of 2 Maccabees, a Jewish woman was forced to watch while her seven sons were killed for refusing to renounce their faith in the true God. Even the latest Martyrologium Romanum only lists Saint Felicitas as a martyr on November 23, omitting the sons.

However, there is the ring of truth in this tradition. Although it was technically illegal to be a Catholic from the time of the Roman emperor Nero’s edict in the year 64 until the time of the Roman emperor Constantine’s edict in the year 313, there were many periods of time when that law was not enforced or not enforced often. Christianity has always appealed to people from all backgrounds, rich and poor, and there have been times when Christians even (quietly) held important positions in the Roman government despite the official prohibition. It would not be unthinkable that a wealthy woman would become a Christian, raise her children in the faith, dedicate her time and money to serve the needy, and then be arrested precisely because she had become a bit too publicly Catholic for comfort. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned during the time when Felicitas is presumed to have died, was a noble man and a good emperor. But Christians were still arrested and executed during his reign, sometimes because of persecution from local authorities and other times because of his edicts. Marcus Aurelius, like many other Roman emperors, found Christians inexplicably obstinate when they refused to do something that was seen as a simple but essential part of living in the Roman empire: offer worship to pagan gods.

Whether Saint Felicitas died alone or with her children, she died for Christ. Like all martyrs, we can ask for her help with our own problems, our own families, and our own spiritual battles as we try to become saints.

Saint Felicitas, show me how to help my family become saints.