I was introduced to Felicitas through a reading assignment in my church history class—one paragraph in Justo González’s two-volume, thousand-page The Story of Christianity. Just a few lines about a widow, her seven sons, and her powerful words in the face of martyrdom. I could’ve blinked and missed it. I’m glad I didn’t blink.
Little is known of Felicitas for certain, and some debate whether her tale is true at all. It’s said she was a second-century Christian in Rome, a mother, and a widow. While there are few biographical details, each of those titles could be plumbed for their own hardships and intricacies, losses and fears.
The name Felicitas has many meanings. Fruitful. Lucky. Happy. Blessed. With seven sons, and possible additional daughters, she had certainly been fruitful. A consecrated widow of the church, she wrung out her days serving and sharing Christ. Her ministry, whatever it looked like, was enough to attract the ire of pagan priests, who brought her before the Roman authorities. In that period, the empire’s policy was not to proactively seek out Christians for persecution—but any who were accused of Christian worship and brought forward were forced to deny their faith or face punishment.
Before the authorities of a vast and violent empire, Felicitas was told to renounce her belief, to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. She would not. Threats increased. Still, she held fast. She is said to have uttered these words to the prefect: “While I live, I shall defeat you; and if you kill me, in my death I shall defeat you all the more.”
What kind of person can say that and mean it? Where does true power come from? Who can claim victory?
The Roman prefect shifted to a different approach, turning to Felicitas’s sons. They faced the same threats—abandon the faith, or else.
Days later in my morning Bible reading, I came to these words in Mark’s gospel: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus tells the twelve disciples before sending them out to proclaim the kingdom. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Two sparrows fall. Seven sons are brought to the authorities. The Father sees them all.
Seven souls—a mother’s legacy of faith, her flesh and heart and hope—condemned before an empire. Seven bodies she’d carried, seven lives she’d loved. Who can imagine what she felt when she looked at them that day? Each was threatened. None recanted.
Some say the sons were killed one by one in separate parts of the city to appease various gods. The Father knew every hair on every head.
Felicitas—the fruitful, the happy, the blessed—asked to die last, so that she could encourage her children to the end. St. Gregory the Great said she died seven deaths before her own, “in some sort a martyr in each of them.” The Romans may have counted that day a victory, a family of subversives snuffed out. It would not be the first time Rome got death wrong.
“In my death, I shall defeat you all the more,” she said. Her words have rung loud in the quiet of my comfortable life. I’d read Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 10 many times before, skimming over with a nod. It’s easy to agree from a distance. But what do I really know of such fear? What do I know of what it takes for a mother to encourage her child to hold fast to his faith when such faith means death? What kind of person can do that seven times over?
Felicitas knew a deeper power, a truer story, a force greater than the weapons of an empire. She knew an authority greater than Rome, a king greater than Caesar, who walked willingly to death and came out the other side. She trusted in the one who made a way for her faithful words to be true—for death to be victory. Her strength was in a savior who was crushed and cursed, so that a mother and her sons could live up to her name and be fruitful, happy, and blessed forever.
Felicitas believed in the better story. I believe in hers.
 “The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Volumes 1-3” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/49604/49604-h/49604-h.htm#c10_1
 Cover image by Annie Spratt.