Monday, May 18, 2009
FELIX OF CANTALICE - "Brother Deo Gratias"
Can you believe it I forgot the feast of Felix of Cantalice? I can't find my Ordo and never checked this morning (got up late, in a rush) and so belatedly I pay my respects to this humble hero of the Capuchin reform. Born in 1515 he was the third of five brothers. Raised to be a farm labourer from the age of ten he worked in the fields. He was illiterate and a cousin had to read to him usually from the lives of the Desert Fathers. These stories inspired Felix.
One day an angel appeared to him and told him to go and join the Capuchins (O that the angels would send us a few more Felixs today!). The Capuchins had only just been founded and were still restricted to Italy. Three times he tried and it was 'third time lucky'.
The Guardian (superior) brought him to the church and told him to pray before the crucifix that he be enlightened. That evening, having completely forgotten about Felix, the Guardian returned only to find Felix still praying. Deeply impressed he accepted Felix telling him "Jesus will no longer be alone. You will help Him carry the cross".
So in 1543 the twenty-eight year old farm labourer set off for Rome to present himself to the Provincial Minister. At the Roman friary of St. Nicholas de Portis he was received by the saintly Bernardine d'Asti who introduced him to the Roman Provincial. Having completed his difficult novitiate Felix made vows on May 18, 1545.
His hopes of a secluded life in the woods were not to be. In 1547 he was sent to Rome where he would quest for the rest of his life. He would beg, eyes down cast, and accept every interaction with a humble 'Deo Gratias' - so much so that he became known as "Brother Deo Gratias". He could refuse no request for help and when he could not meet it from his own bag he would go to the rich. Felix also visited the sick in the hospitals and comforted them. He urged them to see their sickness as a gift from God (he was no stranger to sickness himself). His reputation as a healer spread too. He would bless people with the crucifix or give them some of the wine he had begged and they would be healed.
Coming from a poor background he had no airs and graces. He could be quite direct - even with Popes! He foretold that his friend the Franciscan Felice Peretti (whose father was a Slovene and a convert from Serbian Orthodoxy) would be Pope and later upon meeting him gave him a piece of stale black bread. "Excuse me, Holy Father, but you're still a friar" he told the Pope. I'm sure the Holy Father enjoyed that.
Being illiterate Felix had to memorize his prayers and other texts and would mull over them as he walked or prayed in the chapel. He was often lost in prayer spending many hours at night praying for all those who called on him for help. He was not ashamed to seek knowledge from the educated. Behind his rustic manners and speech there was an inquisitive intelligence and he used it, with God's help, to help the ordinary people of Rome. His talent for song appears in the spontaneous hymns he could compose. Felix must have had a beautiful voice for he was often invited to sing.
Everybody knew Felix. Even the children in the streets called him "Papa". He would give special attention to mothers and their babies and of course the sick. He quested until a few days before he died resisting attempts to take the task from him. On April 30, 1547 he became sick and he told his brothers "This little ass has dropped; it will not rise again". He saw the Virgin and the angels just before he died, his face radiant, and greeted the Blessed Sacrament with "O Sacrum Convivium". He died on May 18th, 1587. He was canonized in 1712 the first of the Capuchin saints.
His body is kept in the church of the Immaculate Conception on the Via Veneto, Rome above the more famous Capuchin cemetery or 'Bone yard'. (The Italians maintain it was a mad French friar who decorated the crypt with the bones of the dead) Sadly the church is in need of a complete overhaul and restoration. If you are nice to the sacristan he may bring you round, through the old choir, to see the cell where Felix lived.
What can we learn from Felix? I would suggest that being oneself, one's true self, is no bar to being holy; that love of one's neighbour is the best method of evangelisation; that prayer is the heart of life.