On May 18 the Capuchins celebrate the Feast of St. Felix of Cantalice, Capuchin. Felix was born at Cantalice, on the north-western border of the Abruzzi, and died at Rome, 18 May, 1587. He is usually represented in art as holding in his arms the Infant Jesus, because of a vision he once had, when the Blessed Virgin appeared to him and placed the Divine Child in his arms.
His parents were peasant folk, and very early he was set to tend sheep. When nine years of age he was hired out to a farmer at Cotta Ducale with whom he remained for over twenty years, first as a shepherd-boy and afterwards as a farm labourer. But from his earliest years Felix evinced signs of great holiness, spending all his leisure time in prayer, either in the harsh or in some solitary place. A friend of his having read to him the lives of the Fathers of the Desert, Felix conceived a great desire for the eremitical life, but at the same time feared to live otherwise than under the obedience of a superior. After seeking light in prayer, he determined to ask admittance amongst the Capuchins. At first the friars hesitated to accept him, but he eventually received the habit, in 1543, at Anticoli in the Roman Province. It was not without the severest temptations that he persevered and made his profession. These temptations were so severe as injure his bodily health. In 1547 he was sent to Rome and appointed questor for the community. Here he remained for the rest of his life, and in fulfilling his lowly office became a veritable apostle of Rome.
The influence which he speedily gained with the Roman people is an evidence of the inherent power of personal holiness over the consciences of men. He had no learning he could not even read; yet learned theologians came to consult him upon the.science of the spiritual life and the Scriptures. Whenever he appeared in the streets of Rome vicious persons grew abased and withdrew from his sight. Sometimes Felix would stop them and earnestly exhort them to live a better life; especially did he endeavour to restrain young men. But judges and dignitaries also at times incurred his rebuke, he was no respecter of persons when it was a matter of preventing sin. On one occasion, during a Carnival, he and St. Philip Neri organized a procession with their crucifix; then came the Capuchin friars; last came Felix leading Fra Lupo, a well-known Capuchin preacher, by a rope round his neck, to represent Our Lord led to judgment by his executioners. Arrived in the middle of the revels, the procession halted and Fra Lupo preached to the people. The Carnival, with its open vice, was broken up for that year.
But Felix's special apostolate was amongst the children of the city, with whom his childlike simplicity made him a special favourite. His method with these was to gather them together in bands and, forming circle, set them to sing canticles of his own composing, by which he taught them the beauty of a good life and the ugliness of sin. These canticles became popular and frequently, when on his rounds in quest of alms, Felix would be invited into the houses of his benefactors and asked to sing. He would seize the opportunity to bring home some spiritual truth in extemporized verse. During the famine of 1580 the directors of the city's charities asked his superiors to place Felix at their disposal to collect alms for the starving, and he was untiring in his quest.
St. Philip Neri had a deep affection for the Capuchin lay brother, whom he once proclaimed the greatest saint then living in the Church. When St. Charles Borromeo sought St. Philip's aid in drawing up the constitutions of his Oblates, St. Philip took him to St. Felix as the most competent adviser in such matters. But through all, Felix kept his wonderful humility and simplicity. He was accustomed to style himself "Ass of the Capuchins". Acclaimed a Saint by the people of Rome, immediately after his death, he was beatified by Urban VIII in 1625, and canonized by Clement XI in 1712. His body rests under an altar dedicated to him in the church of the Immaculate Conception to Rome. (Source: www.newadvent.org
An Augustinian friar, perhaps a relative of his, suggested that he join his Order. Felix replied, "I'll either become a Capuchin or nothing at all."
[Felix] made his way to Cittaducale. There the Guardian led him to the church and told him to pray to the Lord for guidance. Felix knelt down before a large crucifix bearing the emaciated and bloodied body of Christ. Suddenly he experienced in his soul as never before all the sufferings of the God-Man. He seemed to hear Him cry out in his agony and expire. Felix broke into tears. he felt isolated from all the world, completely immersed in the infinite mystery of suffering. He lost all sense of time. At nightfall the Guardian returned to the church and to his surprise found the young man still there, convulsed with weeping and sobbing. "My son," he asked, "What are you doing? Still here? Cheer up. We're going to accept you as one of us. Jesus will not have to suffer alone. You are going to help Him carry His cross." A few days later Felix was clothed with the habit.
For forty years he exercised a powerful spiritual influence on two generations of Romans. When Cardinal Santori tried to lighten his burden a little replied: "Your eminence, my superiors know what is best. And I say that a soldier should die with weapons in hand and the donkey with a load on his back."
The lowly questor was able to assist numberless poor people without the support of committees, advertising or any publicity gimmicks.
His frankness in dealing with the upper classes was really amazing. A certain lady of aristocratic birth but of questionable virtue told him that she longed for something from the friary garden. The gift would have guaranteed her respectability. Felix was not at all impressed. He told her: "First change your way of life."
He trained the street urchins to repeat little verses he taught them. To the common people he offered simple but excellent advice: "Lead a good life; pray the rosary."
Felix once noticed a pile of books on the desk of one of his lawyer friends. He put a crucifix on top of them and said: "All these books are meant to help us understand this one... All of God's law is contained here."
He could be disconcertingly direct with any one. He succeeded in freeing young men from the bonds of vicious habits. He persuaded women given to overexposure to dress more modestly. "Lady, that's not good! That's not good!"
Brother Felix embarked on the road of penance early in his religious life. The canonical process stresses, perhaps excessively, several aspects of his penitential life. "Brother Felix slept barely two or three hours, on his knees or bare boards. He chastised his innocent body with the discipline and hair shirt. He ate only a small portion of stale bread, and on rare occasions took a little soup. He observed several lents a year. From Holy Thursday till Easter Sunday he observed a total fast. His habit was of the coarsest material more suited to torment the body than to protect it from the elements. He would sew up the cracks in his heels with a cobbler's awl and thread."
After evening prayer Felix would snatch two or three hours of sleep. Then he went down to the church where he prayed until midnight. He would then ring the bell for matins. The rest of the night he would spend in prayer. After morning Mass and communion he would set out on his questing tour. Whatever free time he had he spent in the church or in his cell where he repaired his sacks or carved little crosses, using any old kind of wood.
His humility led him to consider himself unworthy to be a friar: "I am not a friar, but I live with friars and am the friars' donkey."
Passing along the street one day he came upon a banquet served with all the pomp and luxury customary among the noble families of the sixteenth century. His companion asked: "Would you like to sit down for a while at the party?" Felix replied: "You may not believe this; but God knows I am telling the truth. I would rather be whipped from one end of the Via dei Banchi to the other" Perhaps he had in mind all the injustice and extortions that made such an extravaganza possible.
When he met a group of friars in the cloister or garden he would greet them: "Deo Gratias!
my fathers and brothers. Speak about God, who rejoices the heart, not about things that can only defile the soul."
Brother Felix maintained a strange reticence about his personal devotion to Mary. Father Alphonsus Lupo discovered the reason. One night, shortly before Christmas, he managed to hide in the pulpit and observe his friend. He saw Mary appear, and yielding to the brother's pleading, she placed the child Jesus in his arms.
On the morning of May 18 Felix took a little nourishment and rested. Suddenly he lifted up his hands, his face beamed and he cried out: "Oh, Oh, Oh." Brother Urbino asked him what was the matter. "I see the Blessed Virgin Mary surrounded by a marvelous company of angels." He then asked the infirmarian to leave and shut the door.
Felix had hardly breathed his last that evening of May 18, 1587 when the people started coming. The convent was under seige and even though the friars locked teh doors, teh crowd scaled the walls with ropes and ladders. The community finally had to bend ot the demands of the faithful adn expose the body in the church from Tuesday to Thursday. The throngs that came seemed endless... The only way the friars themselves could get into the friary was to climb over the garden wall.
Mariano D'Alatri, O.F.M.Cap., ed., The Capuchin Way: Lives of Capuchins
, vol I. (Pittsburgh: North American Capuchin Conference, 1984), 27-47.