Saint Felix of Cantalice

A Bighearted Beggar, the Capuchins' First Saint

feast Day : 18th May

An Overcrowded 'Relic Hunt'

May 18 1587 - As soon as they heard the news of Brother Felix of Cantalice's happy death, the citizens of Rome came running in throngs to the Capuchin Friary.  The Fraternity was to all intents and purposes under siege and the Brothers locked the doors; but the people used ropes and ladders to scale the high garden walls. 

Eventually the Brothers had to give in to the demands of the masses and agree to it that Felix's body should lie in state in the Church from Tuesday to Thursday. Mourners had to file for hours in order to view the remains. All classes of people came to pay their respects.  So many people were hunting for relics that the habit in which the corpse was dressed had to be changed several times over and his hair and beard had all been cut away.  There were even some devotees who tried to lob off his fingers. 

So great were the crowds around the Friary door that the Brothers had to climb over the garden wall to get into the house.  Participants at the General Chapter(General Meeting) of the Order which was being held there at the time had to adjourn the meeting. In fact up until that point most of Felix's confreres had not realized that there were living with such a highly renowned saint.  But Pope Sixtus V knew otherwise.  Even before Felix was buried he had ordered that the Process for his Canonization should begin and when the Process began to get bogged  down, he even considered canonizing him by acclamation. But with the death of Pope Sixtus coming a short time after Felix's death, the Capuchins had to what another 125 years or so for the Order's first Saint.  In his lifetime, Felix Porri had called himself "the Friars' Donkey", but Rome's citizens called "Brother Deo Gratias" and the city's street children simply called "Pappa". Only now, having been canonized, could he be addressed by the honorific title of Saint Felix of Cantalice.

Felix's Youth as a Farm Hand

Felix Porri had been born  in the mountain village of Cantalice in Italy's Puglia Region in 1515.   Coming from a poor peasant household that found it difficult to eke out a living, Felix's parents, Santi and Santa Porri, 
could not afford to send him for schooling.  Instead, in accordance with the custom of they the time, they were constrained to hire out their son as a shepherd boy. Felix had two older brothers. Blaise and Charles, and two younger siblings, Potentia and Peter-Marino. Peter-Marino was to die in a war between Cantalice and Rieti.  At about the age of ten, Felix was hired out as a farm hand to the Picchi farming family who lived at Cittàducale.

Farmhands were rough rustic lads and for the likes of them work was toilsome. So Felix enjoyed wrestling to work off the fatigue of a hard day. Besides, a cousin of his, who knew how to read, would read him the lives of the Desert Fathers, and Felix, attracted by the life of these ascetics, desired to emulate their austerity.

Capuchin Vocation Revealed by an Angel
When Felix was twenty eight years old, he saw an Angel in a dream and the Angel directed him go to Leonessa to join the Capuchin Order.   So Felix went to Leonessa to fulfill the dream but since he could not find the Brother Vicar Provincial he had to return to the farm.  Once more an Angel appeared to him in a dream and this time he directed him to go to the Rieti Friary. 

But this time was also a vain effort and he had to come back to the farm.  One day an Augustinian Friar going by along the road encouraged him to join the Augustinians.  But Felix refused, saying: "Either a Capuchin or nothing!" 

Felix, having missed these two chances, was just whittling away his time without making much progress.  Then one day an accident when he let go of the reins  as he was training in two head of oxen, and as a result got caught beneath the plough share.  Everyone ran towards him, thinking he was dead, but fortunately Felix was totally unharmed.  As a result of this accident Felix, having given up all his property,  went to his employer and asked him to accompany him to Cittàducale Capuchin Friary and help him enter the Order.  

Finally Felix was able to present himself to the Capuchin fraternity in Cittàducale, but the Guardian there took him to the Church and told him to ask for grace to discern his vocation before the large Crucifix.  The Guardian, who had forgotten about Felix and let the whole day go by, only went to the Church that evening to pray and there discovered Felix, who up until then had been kneeling before the Crucifix, weeping. The the Guardian said to him "Son, what are you doing? Still here? Be of good cheer! We will take you with us.  Jesus will no longer be alone.  You will help him carry His Cross."

Novitiate and Religious Profession

Ten days later, felix went to Rome and, by means of an introduction by Brother Bernardine of Asti, the Guardian of the Roma Fraternity, managed to meet the Brother Vicar Provincial whom he had not been able to meet previously.  The Vicar Provincial, Brother Raphael of Volterra, formally received Felix into the Order. It was by then late Autumn 1543.   

On a rainy morning, early in 1444, Brother Felix, together with his Novice Master, Brother Boniface of Fiuggi, went to the Novitiate House in Fiuggi.  During the novitiate, Brother Felix became weak and suffered in mind and body due to frequent fevers and the Brothers were about to tell him to go back home.  In the end, they decided to send him to Monte San Giovanni Campano and fortunately Felix managed to recover there.  And before the public notary, James of Mastrantonio he made over all his property to his siblings and forfeited all future inheritance rights.  On the 18th of May 1545, Brother Felix made perpetual profession, having completed his novitiate. 

Sent to Rome and Appointed as Questor

After serving for about two years in the Tivoli and Viterbo Fraternities, Felix who had always longed for an eremtic life was sent, instead, sent by the Order's Ministers to the Roman Fraternity of San Nicola de Portis in 1547.  There he received the responsibility of begging for the means of  the Fraternity's livelihood as questor and over the next 40 years Brother Felix lived his life, totally dedicated to this task.  

For the sake of his Brothers, Brother Felix of Cantalice, who had become the Capuchins' questor, set out each day through the streets with a questing sack slung over his shoulder. The duty of questing was not an easy one.  Barefoot on unpaved rough roads he had face into harsh weather of every sort.  Always humble and quiet, with a bright and cheery appearance, he made a deep impression on everyone.  He who walked barefoot, with his eyes lowered and praying was someone could not turn down a request for help, He always generously shared  his bread, wine and olive oil with others and when unable to help in person he asked Prelates and Roman nobility to do so. This gave rise to the expression: "Brother Felix's questing sack is as bottomless as his heart."

'Brother Deo Gratias ' !

Brother Felix used to often exhort people, saying "Trust in the Lord's providence and give thanks!"  He earned the pet name 'Brother Deo Gratias', because whenever he received alms, he would say "Deo gratias(Thanks be to God!). 

‘Brother Deo Gratias’ with his Ministers' permission not only begged for the friars but he also begged to help the poor.  He also used to bless the sick with a cross and cure their illnesses.  Food that Brother Felix received by questing later became an instrument of healing. and he once even cured an eye disease of Potentia, the mother of Cardinal Crescenzi, Bishop of Orvieto, by washing her eyes with wine he had previously begged for. He frequently consoled those who were dying. He would prepare them for death by encouraging them with words like "Paradise! Paradise!" or "Let yourself go to heaven." 

Felix the Troubadour

Brother Felix showed a particular interest in abandoned children. Besides sharing with them the material goods they were in need of, he also taught them catechism in a simple and easy way by means of ditties he himself had composed.

 These ditties were short hyms in praise of Jesus and Mary, His Holy Mother. For instance the song that goes “Gesù, somma speranza, del cor somma baldanza. Deh! dammi tanto amore, che mi basti ad amarti (Jesus, utmost hopefulness, of the heart utmost boldness.  Hey! Give me such a lot of love that for me loving Thee 's enough. )” and “Hoggi in questa terra è nata una rosella, Maria verginella, ch'è Madre d'Iddio. (Today on this earth of ours a baby rose is born and flow'rs, Mary, this Maiden of ours, who is Mother of God)”

Our Lady Gives the Child Jesus into Felix's Arms

Brother Felix took great care to conceal his interior life.  He concealed his devotion to Our Lady particularly well but it became evident eventually to Father Alphonsus Lupo who was secretly spying on Brother Felix praying one night, around Christmas.   On that night he witnessed Our Lady appearing to Brother Felix.  He also saw Her place the Child Jesus in Brother Felix's arms after he asked Her to do so.  As a result of this anecdote, in Saint Felix's iconography, the Saint often appears holding the Child Jesus in his arms.  The particular concern and tender love for babies and young mothers that Brother Felix nurtured is another clear indicator of his devotion to the Holy Mother and Child.

'Brother of the People', Concerned for the Needy

It was to Brother Felix, rather than to a doctor, that the people of Rome would go  to ask for help with all their worries and sufferings. On such occasions he would kneel down and entrust everything to the Lord's Providence by praying the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary. Many children affectionately called Brother Felix "Pappa!(Daddy!)" and it is said that those who did not know Brother Felix very well were some times somewhat taken aback at an elderly celibate Religious being addressed in these familiar terms.   

Brother Felix had a great trust in the Divine Providence of a Good God.  One year, when the plague broke out in Rome, the Ministers were worried that, considering the times that were in it, the Brothers might run short of food and they suggested that Brother Felix should no longer beg for food for the poor.  To this suggestion, Brother Felix gave this retort: "Brothers, do you really think that the Brothers will starve if we beg for alms for the poor?  Believe me!  As long as the poor get something to eat, our Brothers will not starve either."  On hearing this, the Ministers allowed him to continue this good work.  And so, throughout the next year, Brother Felix begged enough to enable him to feed not only the Brothers but also many other needy citizens.

Ready to Straighten Out Even His Superiors

Brother Felix generally was rather silent in the Fraternity but he would also express his candid views, if the need arose. He would say to a Brother "I want to correct you." 

and be forthright in giving him a few exhortations.  To Capuchin preachers he would say:  "Do not preach not to make a name for yourselves but preach to get people to repent."  Frequently he would quote this golden saying of Brother Giles:   "Bo, bo, bo, assai dico e poco fo!“ which means "Boo, boo, boo! I say a lot but little do!"  

There was one occasion when he reprimanded Julius Anthony Santori the Cardinal Protector of the Capuchin Order, saying:  "Cardinal. you were appointed to protect us, not to interfere in the Superiors' business."And to the future Pope Sixtus V, he said: "When you become Pope, be Pope for the glory of God and the good of the Church.  If not, then it would be better that you remain a simple Friar."  It is said that when, later, after becoming Pope, Sixtus V met Felix in the street he would ask him for bread and Brother Felix would respond to his request by giving him stale black bread saying:  "I am sorry, Your Holiness; but you are still a friar, aren't you?" (Pope Sixtus V was originally a Franciscan Friar Minor.)

Once he placed a crucifix on top of the legal tomes of a Lawyer called Bernardine Biscia and pointed to the Crucified One, saying "Bernardine, look here!  All these books are meant for understanding Him better."  

When Brother Felix talked with people like this, he always used his native Sabine dialect's familiar form of language, Felix did not know how to put on airs and graces.  If he thought that there was a need to call someone to repentance, then, regardless of their class or status, he candidly confronted them fair and square.  But when begging for something or giving someone something they needed, he was said to treat them with courteous respect.

Felix's Hidden Prayer Life

Brother Felix used to memorize prayers and versicles from the Scriptures or liturgical texts for his own personal devotion and meditation.  He was illiterate, unable to read, but he prayed from the heart and fortified his spirit with spiritual prudence.   Whether he was on the streets of Rome, or in his cell, or in the Friary Church, his heart was always imbued with contemplation.  Drawing inspiration form the words of the Gospel, he would meditate on them; and after the other Brothers had gone to bed, he spent many hours before the Blessed Sacrament, praying for the people he had met that day and commending them to Gods Providence.  When he was curious about matters he did not know about and received spiritual direction from Father Alphonsus Lupo, a famous Spanish priest. 

A Friend of Saints

Saint Felix was a friend of some other famous saints of his time.  He and Saint Phillip Neri would act like drunks fighting on the streets of Rome, and after gathering a crowd of onlookers about them, provided an audience for Saint Phillip's preaching. Saint Charles Borromeo was also one of Saint Felix's friends.  It is said that he once asked the illiterate Felix to evaluate the Constitutions of the Oblates of Saint Ambrose which he himself had founded and Brother Felix taking the book and weighing it in his hands joked that it was to weighty.  When Saint Charles had heard Felix had thus commented on his Constitutions, he understood his words to mean that he should not insist on certain aspects contained therein, such as formal vows, and, in accordance with Brother Felix's advice, he reedited the Constitutions relaxing some of their rules and regulations.     

As Felix Dies, Our Lady of the Angels Comes to Meet Him

On the 30th of April 1587, Brother Felix grew sick and guessed that he would soon die.  To the Brothers he said. “The little jackass has fallen and it will not be getting up again."  Despite the praises of so many people, Felix always humbly deemed himself to be an ass that carried the Friars' loads.  On the morning of the 18th of May 1587, the Brother who was providing bedside care for Brother Felix, Brother Urban of Prato, saw his face transfigured with dazzling brightness.  He asked Felix why he had raised his hands and was stuttering out in exclamation "Oh! Oh! Oh!"   Felix answered: "I see the Blessed Virgin Mary surrounded by a  remarkable retinue of Angels." When the guardian brought him Holy Viaticum, Brother Felix began to sing the Eucharistic hymn ‘O sacrum convivium(Oh Sacred Banquet)’, and after receiving Holy Communion, while the priest was reciting the prayer "Depart, Christian soul" he departed this world, as if in final obedience to the words of the prayer.

Felix, the Capuchins' First Saint and Model

Saint Felix of Cantalice's body rests in the Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception on Rome's Via Veneto.  He was beatified by Pope Urban VIII on the 1st of October 1625 and was canonized by Pope Clement XI on the 22nd of May 1712.  Saint Felix of Cantalice is not only the first canonized Saint of the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor but also the Saint whose example most embodies the distinctive characteristics of the Capuchins' way of life and holiness.

"Cross of Christ on my forehead, Word of Christ in my mouth. Love of Christ in my heart!" "I live so happily that it seems to me that I am already in Paradise:  and may it please the Lord not to give me any reward in the present life for whatever little thing I may do." "Think about God who rejoices the heart and not about vain things which pollute the heart." "I know only six letters: five red and one white; The five red letters are the Wounds of Our Lord Jesus Chris, the white being the Madonna." "Eyes on the ground, heart in heaven. rosary in hand." - Saint Felix of Cantalice

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