Saint of the Day – 14 January – St Felix of Nola (Died c 253) Priest, Confessor, Apostle of Charity – born in the 3rd century at Nola, near Naples, Italy and died c 253 of natural causes. Patronage – Nola, Italy.
Much of the little information we have about Felix comes from the letters and poetry of Saint Paulinus of Nola (354-431), written 100 years after St Felix’s death.
Felix was the elder son of Hermias, a Syrian centurion who had retired to Nola, Italy. After his father’s death Felix sold off most of his property and possessions, gave the proceeds to the poor and pursued a clerical vocation. After Felix divested himself of all his possessions, St Maximus, the bishop of Nola, a town near Naples, Italy, ordained him a priest and made him his assistant. In 250, when Emperor Decius decreed a ferocious persecution, Maximus installed himself in a desert hiding place from which he safely governed the church. Because soldiers could not find Maximus at Nola, they tortured and jailed Felix in his place. However, just as St Peter had had a miraculous escape from prison, an angel is said to have released Felix. Then the angel guided Felix to rescue Maximus, who was near death.
The persecution subsided in 251. Upon the death of Maximus the people wanted to name Felix as bishop but he declined. Instead he retired to a small farm, where for the rest of his life he raised crops to feed himself and provide alms for the poor. St Felix died around 260.
Every year Paulinus wrote a poem to celebrate Felix’s feast day. In one he said that while Felix did not die a martyr he was willing to offer his life as a sacrifice to God. Paulinus thus provided one of the earliest definitions of a “confessor”:
“This festive day celebrates Felix’s birthday, the day on which he died physically on earth and was born for Christ in heaven, winning his heavenly crown as a martyr who did not shed his blood. For he died as confessor, though he did not avoid execution by choice, since God accepted his inner faith in place of blood. God looks into the silence of hearts and equates those ready to suffer with those who have already done so, for He considers this inward test as sufficient and dispenses with physical execution in case of true devotion. Martyrdom without bloodshed is enough for Him if mind and faith are ready to suffer and are fervent towards God.
Paulinus adopted Felix as his patron saint, a custom that had its roots in the early church. But for Paulinus, a patron was more than a namesake. Felix not only interceded for him in heaven. He also accompanied him spiritually as an encourager, guide, and protector, as Paulinus explained in the following passage:
Father and lord, best of patrons to servants however unworthy, at last our prayer is answered to celebrate your birthday within your threshold. . . .You know what toils on land and sea have . . . kept me far from your abode in a distant world, because I have always and everywhere had you near me and have called on you in the grim moments of travel and in the uncertainties of life.. . . I never sailed without you, for I felt your protection in Christ the Lord, when I overcame rough seas. On land and water my journeying is always made safe through you. Felix, I beg you, address a prayer on behalf of your own, to that Embodiment of the calm of eternal love and peace, to Him on whose great name you depend. Amen
Five churches have been built at, or near the place, where St Felix was first interred, which was without the precincts of the city of Nola. His precious remains are kept in the cathedral but certain portions are at Rome, Benevento, and some other places. In time a new church in Nola was dedicated in the name of St Felix. People travelled from far away to see the burial place of this revered saint. St Paulinus, who acted as porter to one of these churches, testifies to numerous pilgrimages made in honour of Felix.
The poems and letters of Paulinus on Felix are the source from which St Gregory of Tours, Venerable Bede, and the priest Marcellus have drawn their biographies. There is another Felix of Nola, bishop and martyr under a Prefect Martianus. He should not be considered to be the same as the above.
One of the most well-known legends of St Felix relates to a spider. It goes as follows:
Shortly following the imprisonment of Bishop Maximus, Felix was taken into custody by Roman soldiers, imprisoned, scourged and tortured and wrapped with heavy chains in his prison cell. He miraculously escaped from his cell, following visitation from an angel who instructed him to go to the aid of his ailing bishop. As the angel encouraged Felix, his chains fell off and his prison cell was opened. Felix rescued Maximus, bearing him on his back (despite weakness and small stature) and effectively hiding both men from Roman authorities until the end of Decius’ reign.
The second attempt to imprison Felix and Maximus was miraculously prevented by a spider! Upon hearing Roman soldiers approaching, Felix crawled into a small hole in the building he was staying, where it is said a spider immediately spun a web over the opening. The guards saw the spider web and ceased searching for the men, assuming that the room had been undisturbed for some time.