When I was a child, there were four Catholic schools in our little city of 50,000. Each covered K-12. There was the German parish, the Irish parish, the Polish parish and the non-parish-affiliated all girls school. The Felician Sisters taught at the Polish parish school. It wasn’t until I read about St. Felix that I understood about the Felician Sisters.
St. Felix was the first Capuchin Franciscan canonized. And with good reason did the pope take this step!
Saint Felix was born the third of four sons to Santi and Santa Porri, poor illiterate farmers in Cantalice, Apulia, a very agriculturally oriented province in the southeastern “stiletto heel” of Italy. At the age of 8 or 9, Felix was hired out to a farmer to be a shepherd. Then he became a farm hand on the same farm. Illiterate like his parents, he learned to pray early and quickly developed a habit of praying while he worked.
The pious young man could not be happy working on the farm. He was meant for more. In the fall of 1543, Felix, in his late 20s, joined the new order of the Capuchins at Citta Ducale Monastery in Anticoli, some miles from his home. It was the responsibility of the abbot to explain to the novices how hard it was to live up to the expectations of the order. Felix was said to respond: “Father, the austerity of your order does not frighten me. I hope, with God’s help, to overcome all the difficulties which will arise from my own weakness.” He became the model of simplicity and piety.
Within a few years, Felix was assigned to the Friary of St. Nicholas de Portus, in Rome. He became the monastery’s questor or official beggar. He would make the rounds of the city, barefoot, with a large bag on his back, asking for alms, or money from those he met. He was, what we would call today, a fundraiser. However, there is a twist. He would often sing his thanks. And he would end every contact with “Deo Gratias” Eventually, Felix was referred to as Brother Deo Gratias.
Plinio Correo de Oliveira describes Felix thus: He “reflected the jovial aspect of the spiritual life that used to exist in Christian Civilization”. Felix did this in a number of ways.
He was drawn to children, and they to him. If they saw him on the street, they would run up to him, surround him and ask for a story. He would always give in to their demands and end with “Deo Gratias”. And the children would loudly respond, “Deo Gratias”. Felix composed little songs containing the teachings of the catechism and he would have the children sing with him. He would just gather them together on the streets and begin.
Felix was known as a healer for a long time. It is said that he would bless ill people with a crucifix and they would be healed.
Felix had a way of talking to people, showing them their faults and sins in such a way that they would smile in appreciation for his words. He could rebuke corrupt politicians and officials. He could urge young men to stop leading dissolute lives. And he worked hard to convert hardened sinners. His advice and counseling were as good as any psychologist’s. He taught others gratitude for graces and favors received.
Felix was very successful at his begging. He was so successful, in fact, that in 1580, during a famine, the political leaders of Rome asked the Friary if they could “borrow” Felix to collect food and provisions for the city. The Order’s superior agreed. And Felix was able to do what the politicians could not.
Felix was also very satisfied with his position in life. When he was an old man, his superiors had to actually order him to wear sandals, to protect his health. He did so. However, at about the same time, a Cardinal suggested that Felix give up begging to spend more time in prayer. Felix would not give up that which he loved.
Now, there is another side to St. Felix. Yes, he was a joyful man, but he was a spiritual man. He prayed the Holy Rosary often. And he was quite concerned about the Blessed Sacrament being alone. During the day, there was often someone of the friars in the chapel with the Blessed Sacrament. But at night, this was not the case. Felix would arrive after everyone had left and stayed in the chapel. Then, when Matins was sung, he would take a nap in his cell. When the other friars went back to bed for a while, he would rise up again and spend more time in the chapel. After that, he went to his job of begging.
Just because Felix was illiterate does not mean he was not intelligent. His friend, St. Philip Neri realized this. Neri, the founder of the Oratory, served the poor. The two were close because they had the same goal. One time, St. Charles Borromeo, a friend of Neri’s, and archbishop of Milan, sent him a revision of the rule for his Oblates. Neri gave it to Felix, asking him to have someone read it to him and comment on it. Felix had opinions and suggested alternatives. Borromeo adopted Felix’s alterations. That is quite an honor, seeing as Borromeo is considered an intellectual of the Church and one of the leading members of the Counter-Reformation.
Felix had a vision, at least once. The Blessed Virgin appeared to him and placed the Divine Child in his arms. Many pictures show him with a child. Saint Pope john Paul II said that Felix is “shown bearing the infant Jesus in his arms because in bearing the burdens of the needy, he had carried in his arms the poor Christ himself.”
St. Felix died on his 72nd birthday, May 18, 1587. He was buried in the crypt of the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuci. He was canonized by Pope Clement XI May 22, 1712.
St. Felix, pray for us that we can do even a little of what you have done.
© Debbie McCoy, 2017