St. Felix of Nola lived in Italy in the days of the Roman persecutions. He survived, however, and went on to earn his crown as one of the early Christian ascetics.
What we know about him comes mostly from St. Paulinus of Nola, bishop of the diocese of Nola a century later, who wrote many poems in praise of Felix. Some of the biographical details may well be folkloric, but here is the basic outline of his priestly career.
A native of Nola, near Naples, Felix was the second son of a Syrian-born father. His brother joined the imperial army. Felix, however, found his joy (the name “Felix” means “happy”) in the service of the Lord. Having given his belongings to the poor, he was ordained a priest by St. Maximus, the then bishop of Nola.
Now, in the year 250, Roman Emperor Decius launched a thorough persecution of Christians. Bishop Maximus, knowing that he was marked for death, followed the scriptural admonition and went into hiding, entrusting the diocesan administration to Felix. The Roman constables, failing to discover the bishop, took out their frustration on his administrator. They scourged Felix viciously and then jailed him in a cell that was in itself an instrument of torture.
One night, however, an angel appeared to Father Felix and commanded him to go to his bishop, since he was gravely ill. Thereupon the priest’s shackles fell off and the door of his prison came unlocked. Hastening to Maximus’s side, Felix decided to carry him off on his shoulders to his home in Nola, where at the moment he could apparently escape detection. There a kindly old woman nursed him back to health.
Felix himself then had to take to flight, now to one hideout, now to another, ever pursued by government agents. One day as they drew near, he managed to crawl into a hole in a ruined wall. There he was protected by spiders much as Jesus was during the flight into Egypt, according to the old legend. No sooner had he entered the hiding place when the spiders quickly wove a screen of cobwebs across the opening. The pursuers saw the hole, but passed on. Nobody could be inside, they concluded, because the web was intact.
The priest of Nola was living in a dry well when Decius’ persecution was called off. Maximus died soon afterward, and his flock agreed as one man that Felix should succeed him as bishop. Felix declined the office, however, and persuaded the people to accept Quintus, a senior priest of the diocese. He could now have pressed the government to restore his personal property that it had confiscated, yet he did not take that step, because it contradicted his ideal of poverty. Retaining only a small plot of land, he set up a sort of hermitage, cultivating the land and sharing its produce with the needy. His constant practice was to give to the poor anything extra. When a friend made him a present of a second coat, for instance, he would give away the better garment and retain the inferior one. Sometimes, indeed, he gave a pauper his own good suit and donned the pauper’s rags. Having thus led a life of joyous self-denial, he was hailed at his death as unquestionably a saint.
The tomb of Felix at Nola became the focus of international pilgrimage. When Paulinus was installed as bishop of Nola many decades later, miracles were still being wrought at the saint’s shrine. Some of the wonders he recorded in his writings he himself had witnessed. Many Christians chose to be buried close to Felix’s tomb, hoping that they might have a better chance of mounting to heaven if they were near him at the resurrection.
Paulinus meanwhile became a bit worried about the theology of the intercessory power of the saints. How could they know, he asked St. Augustine, that we on earth were praying to them? The great theologian calmed his fears. God, he says, reveals to them that we are asking their intercession. Then they turn to God to pray on our behalf.
Whether we pray, then, to St. Felix or to any others who live in God’s presence, we may be sure that the message gets through!
–Father Robert F. McNamara