Today, Tuesday 18 May 2021, is the feast of the Capuchin lay brother St Felix of Cantalice (+1587). Certainly Brother Felix has been foundational not just for the Capuchin reform but also for the renewal of the Church, as rightly demanded by the Council of Trent. On May 12, 1712, Pope Clement XI raised to the honours of the altar Saints Pius V, Andrea Avellino, Caterina da Bologna and, the great Felix da Cantalice, the first saint of the Capuchin Franciscan reform.
Felix was born in 1515 at Cantalice in Rieti. Coming from a pious parents it was natural that the little Felix absorbed their spirit of devotion and prayer, to the extent that his friends, as soon as they saw him coming, would shout: “Here comes Felix the saint!” While herding his parents’ cows in the field the young Felix took the opportunity to unite himself with God in hours of meditation, growing in the ‘art of prayer’ under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. His favorite theme was reflection on the suffering and death of Jesus, and from his earliest age Felix was granted that most important grace of praying for those who insulted him.
As time passed he started to wonder what was the vocation God was calling him to pursue in his life. His life story tells us that one day, while plowing a field, something terrified the oxen with which he was working. Felix did his very best to hold them back. As he tried to hold them back it happened to him that he fell below them. Felix was trampled and the plow even passed over his body. However, he was miraculously unharmed. This life-shaking experience might have helped him to seriously consider consecrated life.
And this exactly was Felix did. At the age of thirty he left his farming life and entered the Order of the Capuchins Friars Minor. At the friary, Felix kept growing in holiness not simply because he doubled his penances and mortifications but, and mostly, because he was humble enough to regard the other friars much holier than he was. At 35 years of age Brother Felix was sent to Rome with assignment of begging – part of the Franciscan charism, and he fulfilled this ministry with the most exemplary simplicity of mind for forty years. In continuous prayer and in humble joy, he walked the streets of Rome, assisting the sick and the poor, for whom he begged, and inviting the children to sing divine praises. He was called “Brother Deo gratias” for his customary greeting. Saint Filippo Neri, the founder of the Oratory, was a close friend of his while Saint Carlo Borromeo, the great cardinal of the Council of Trent, sought his conversation.
Such a holy life can be easily depicted by what St Francis says regarding charity in humility, patience and simplicity, which were so characteristic of St Felix holy life.
In that love which is God, I entreat all my friars, whether they are given to preaching, praying, or manual labour, to do their best to humble themselves at every opportunity; not to boast or be self‐satisﬁed, or take pride in any good which God says or does or accomplishes in them or by them; as our Lord himself put it: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you!”
We must be ﬁrmly convinced that we have nothing of our own, except our vices and sins. And so we should be glad when we fall into various trials, and when we suffer anguish of soul or body, or afﬂiction of any kind in this world, for the sake of life eternal. We must all be on our guard against pride and empty boasting and beware of worldly or natural wisdom. A worldly spirit loves to talk a lot but do nothing, striving for the exterior signs of holiness that people can see, with no desire for true piety and interior holiness of spirit. It was about people like this that Our Lord said: “Amen I say to you, they have received their reward”. The spirit of God, on the other hand, inspires us to mortify and despise our lower nature and regard it as a source of shame, worthless and of no value. Humility, patience, perfect simplicity, and true peace of heart are all its aim, but above everything else it desires the fear of God, the divine Wisdom, and the divine love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We must refer every good to the most high supreme God, acknowledging that all good belongs to him; and we must thank him for it all, because all good comes from him. May the most supreme and high and only true God receive and have and be paid all honour and reverence, all praise and blessing, all thanks and all glory, for to him belongs all good and no one is good, but only God. And when we see or hear people speaking or doing evil or blaspheming God, we must say and do good, praising God, who is blessed for ever.
In his circular letter on the 350th anniversary of the canonization of St Felix of Cantalice, on May 18th, 2012, the then Minister General of the Capuchin Order, Br Mauro Jöhri OFM Cap, magnificently depicted how St Felix was truly a man of the people as well as a man of God:
Being among people of every social class, day in and day out, brought him into contact with the many forms of spiritual and material misery of his times. He collected everything in his knapsack, and back home in the friary he emptied it all into the hands of the guardian: there would be bread, beans, and whatever else he had been given, but there were also all the misfortunes he had seen, the children he had taught to sing, the tears of many, the kindness of the goodhearted souls who had gladly given alms. All this, and all of them, a happy Brother Felix would take to the church, and offer his prayer and the remains of his day for them, which usually meant most of the night. To this he added the penances of every kind to implore God’s intervention for everyone, rich and poor, all of them in need of God’s mercy.
Being among people did not distract him from union with God, in fact it was his way of contemplating the mystery of God’s love for human beings. We could say that Brother Felix was a street contemplative. Surrounded by people he was joyful, cheerful, in a simple manner, characteristics that made everyone feel close to him. He was a true brother of the people! They knew him as Brother “Deo gratias”. That was in fact his motto, his way of giving thanks for the alms he received. And if anyone made fun of him or thought him mad, he rejoiced inwardly and even managed to win the person round, because he welcomed everyone with the patience of God, who knows how to wait for sinners and never stops loving them.
So happy was he with his lot as a questing brother that he used to say: “I’m fine, better off than the pope. The pope has many troubles and worries, but I enjoy this world: and I wouldn’t swap this begging sack for the papacy and King Philip put together!” His simple, direct manner led him to exchange witty stories with Pope Sixtus V and with Philip Neri, and also with the future Cardinal Cesare Baronio and Saint Charles Borromeo. He was witty and wise with the students of the German College, but also with a few ladies of the Roman nobility, with never a hint of malice! The saints know well how to laugh and raise a smile, hiding, as Brother Felix did, their zeal to give themselves to Christ, so that no-one will notice. Such is the humility of one who knows no other word except to do the will of God.
Loved and esteemed by all, Brother Felix died in Rome on the 8th of May 1587 at the age of 72. On his deathbed he had a vision of Mary, and after his demise miracles abounded. He was declared blessed in 1625 by Urban VIII, and was canonized by Clement XI in 1712.
As Br Mauro Jöhri OFM Cap said in his letter, St Felix teaches us three important things as Capuchins. First, we as Capuchin brothers are a gift to one another. Every one of us has received from the Lord this marvellous capacity to be a gift. Today our saintly confrere encourages us to live in our everyday lives the fascinating adventure of being a gift to all, because it is in the exercise of a life generously given that our personalities unfold to their full potential, as Vatican II also confirms: “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (GS, 24).
Second, we as Capuchins are called to be contemplatives in action. Brother Felix was made for contemplation. Without any effort, he could concentrate on heavenly thoughts, even while walking the streets of Rome, amidst the hustle and bustle of the carriages and the clamour of passers-by. But that could hardly assuage his spirit’s thirst for the things of God. And so he prayed at night. The hours of the night-time adoration would pass without his even noticing”(Santi e Santità nell’Ordine Cappuccino, Roma 1980, vol. I, 48).
Third, we as Capuchins are brothers to the people. This has been our identity card in every age. However, if we wish that unique identity to be concretely confirmed in our day also, it is up to us to be fully and convincingly open to God, so that we can be open and welcoming and available to any brother or sister in need. Exactly so! Brother Felix in fact was a man of God and a brother of the people. To be welcoming means to allow the Lord’s grace and salvation to be channelled through the encounter with our brother or sister. The ministry of welcome always involves going out of oneself to open up to the other person; it means welcoming each person as “unique” and as “other” than our own expectations and categories.
O God, you gave Saint Felix to the Church and to the Franciscan Order as an example of Gospel simplicity and innocence; grant that, following his footsteps, we may seek to love and follow Christ alone in joyfulness of heart. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Saint Felix, whom your life has been a remarkable hymn of praise to the Lord, pray for us!