Saint Felix of Cantalice: Humble Servant

Saint Felix of Cantalice: Humble Servant

On May 18, the Franciscan family celebrates the memory of St. Felix of Cantalice (1515–1587), a Capuchin friar known for his life of humble service.

Devoted to prayer during work

Born in the village of Cantalice near Rieti, Italy, to a peasant family, Felix Porri worked as shepherd and then a ploughman. He was known to be devoted to prayer in the midst of his work. One day, while he was breaking in a team of young oxen, the animals were suddenly spooked and trampled on Felix, pulling the plow over his body. He survived, but this narrow escape caused him to rethink his life, and in 1543 he sought admission to the Capuchin friars in Cittaducale as a lay brother.

St Felix Cantalice.Italy 700pxlsThe village of Cantalice, near Rieti, birthplace of St. Felix. The church on top of the hill, dedicated to him, was built on the site of his humble family home.

Begging for and sharing alms for the poor

In 1548, Felix was sent to Rome, where for the next four decades he served as the “ass of the friars” (his own term!), going out each day with a sack to beg for food and other alms for the support of the fraternity. He was allowed to share the alms he gathered with the poor people he met in the streets, especially widows with children.

St Felix Capuchin Church.Rome 700pxlsThe Capuchin Church of the Immaculate Conception in Rome, near the Piazza Barberini. Felix lived and died at the Capuchins’ original church in the city near the Trevi fountain. The remains of the friars who were buried there, including Felix, were removed here in 1630 when they received this new church.

Improvising spiritual songs

Over the years, Felix became a familiar figure among the people of Rome as he went about barefoot in all types of weather, singing improvised spiritual songs; the children, who flocked to him to hear his stories, called him “Brother Deo gratias” because of his cheerful habit of saying “Thanks be to God” for the alms he received. He shared a profound homespun wisdom with all he met and became a close friend of St. Philip Neri, who often sought his advice.

St Felix with Philip Neri 700pxlsPainting depicting Felix encountering his friend, Philip Neri, in the streets of Rome

Namesake of the Felician Sisters

Felix was beatified in 1625 and canonized in 1712, the first Capuchin to receive that honor. This humble friar is memorialized in the name of one of the largest congregations of Franciscan women, the Felician Sisters. A Polish lay woman, Sophia Truszkowska, began working with poor, abandoned children in Warsaw in the 1850s. Her Capuchin spiritual director encouraged her to become a Secular Franciscan; in 1855, with a few companions, she moved this ministry into new quarters near the Capuchin Church. The people of Warsaw often observed the sisters praying with the children at the shrine of St. Felix there and began calling them the “Sisters of St. Felix.” A few years later, when the women became a formally organized religious community and Sophia became “Mother Angela,” they officially became the Congregation of St. Felix.

Felix embodied the words of St. Francis

In that love which is God, I beg all my brothers [and sisters], whether they are in engaged in preaching, praying, or manual labor, to strive to humble themselves in everything; not to boast or be self‐satisfied, or take pride in any good which God sometimes says or does or accomplishes in and through them. 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 . . . 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 does little, striving for exterior signs of holiness that people can see, with no desire for true piety and interior holiness of spirit. . . The spirit of God, on the other hand, inspires us to mortify and look down upon our lower nature. . . and strives for humility, patience, simplicity, and true peace of spirit. . . And let us refer every good to the most high Supreme God, and acknowledge that every good is God’s; and thank the one from whom all good comes. . . .—Francis of Assisi, The Earlier Rule, chapter 17

St Felix sarcophagus.Rome 700pxlsThe altar of St. Felix in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Rome was built over the saint’s remains.

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Main image: Felix of Cantalice, by Peter Paul Rubens, painted around the time of Felix's beatification (c. 1630). The saint is depicted with his begging sack over his arm, carrying a large flask of olive oil.