It is observed by the judicious Tillemont, regarding the life of this saint, that we might doubt its extraordinary circumstances were they not supported by the authority of a Paulinus; but those great miracles ought to be received with the greater reverence when authorized by incontestable vouchers.
Saint Felix was a native of Nola, a Roman colony in Campania, fourteen miles from Naples, where his father Hermias, who was by birth a Syrian and had served in the army, had purchased an estate and settled himself. He had two sons, Felix and Hermias, to whom he left his inheritance at his death. The younger sought advancement in the world among the lovers of vanity by following the profession of arms, which was the surest road to riches and honors at that time. But, to become what his name in Latin imported, that is happy, Felix resolved to follow no other standard than that of the King of kings, Jesus Christ. For this purpose, despising all earthly things, lest the love of them might entangle his soul, he distributed the better part of his substance among the poor and was ordained Reader Exorcist and, lastly, a priest by Maximus, the holy bishop of Nola; who, charmed with his sanctity and prudence, made him his principal support in those times of trouble, and designed him for his successor.
In the year 250, the emperor Decius(1) raised a bloody persecution against the church. Maximus, seeing himself principally aimed at, retired into the desert, not through the fear of death, which he desired, but rather not to tempt God by seeking it and to preserve himself for the service of his flock. The persecutors, not finding him, seized on Felix, who, in his absence, was very vigilant in discharging all his pastoral duties. The governor caused him to be scourged; then loaded with bolts and chains about his neck, hands, and legs and cast into a dungeon, in which, as Saint Prudentius informs us, the floor was spread all over with potsherds and pieces of broken glass, so that there was no place free from them, on which the saint could either stand or lie. One night an angel appeared in great glory, filled the prison with a bright light, and bade Saint Felix go and assist his bishop, who was in great distress. The confessor seeing his chains fall off and the doors open, followed his guide and was conducted by heaven to the place where Maximus lay, almost perished with hunger and cold, speechless, and without sense: for, through anxiety for his flock, and the hardships of his solitary retreat, he had suffered more than martyrdom. Not being able to bring him to himself, Felix had recourse to prayer; discovering a bunch of grapes within reach, he squeezed some of the juice into his mouth, which had the desired effect. The good bishop no sooner beheld his friend Felix, but he embraced him and begged to be conveyed back to his church. The saint taking him on his shoulders, carried him to his episcopal house in the city before day appeared, where a pious ancient woman took care of him.
With the blessing of his pastor, Felix repaired secretly to his lodgings and there kept himself concealed, praying for the church without ceasing, till peace was restored to it by the death of Decius in the year 251. He no sooner appeared again in public, but his zeal so exasperated the pagans that they came armed to apprehend him; but though they met him, they knew him not; they even asked him where Felix was, a question he did not think proper to give a direct answer! The persecutors going a little further perceived their mistake and returned, but in the meantime, the saint had stepped a little out of the way and crept through a hole in a ruinous old wall, instantly closed by spider webs. His enemies, never imagining anything could have lately passed where they saw so close a spiders’ web after a fruitless search elsewhere, returned in the evening without their prey. Felix found among the ruins, between two houses, an old well half dry, hid in it for six months; and received money to exist through a devout Christian woman. Peace was restored to the church by the emperor’s death, the saint quitted his retreat, and was received in the city as an angel sent from heaven.
Soon after, with Saint Maximus dying, all were unanimous on electing Felix as bishop. Still, he persuaded the people to choose Quintus because the older priest of the two had been ordained seven days before him. Quintus, when bishop, always respected Saint Felix as his father and followed his every advice. The remainder of the saint’s estate having been confiscated in the persecution, he was advised to lay claim to it, as others had done, who thereby recovered what had been taken from them. He answered that he should be more secure in possessing Christ in poverty. He could not even be prevailed upon to accept what the rich offered him. He rented a little spot of barren land, not exceeding three acres, which he tilled with his own hands in such manner as to receive his subsistence from it and to have something left for alms. Whatever was bestowed on him, he gave immediately to the poor. If he had two coats, he was sure to provide them with the better; and often exchanged his only one for the rags of some beggar. He died in a good old age on the fourteenth of January, on which day the Martyrology, under the name of Saint Jerome, and all others of later date mention him. Five churches have been built at or near where he was first interred, without the precincts of the city of Nola. His precious remains are kept in the cathedral, but certain portions are in Rome, Benevento, and other places. Pope Damasus, in a pilgrimage which he made from Rome to Nola, to the shrine of this saint, professes, in a short poem which he composed in acknowledgment, that he was miraculously cured of a distemper through his intercession.
Saint Paulinus, a Roman senator in the fifth age, forty–six years after the death of Saint Damasus, came from Spain to Nola, desirous of being a porter in the church of Saint Felix. He testifies that crowds of pilgrims came from Rome, from all other parts of Italy, and more distant countries, to visit his sepulcher on his festival: he adds that all brought some present or different to his church, such as wax candles to burn at his tomb, precious ointments, costly ornaments, and such like; but that for his part, he offered to him the homage of his tongue, and himself, though an unworthy victim. He everywhere expresses his devotion to this saint in the warmest and strongest terms and believes that all the graces he received from heaven were conferred on him through the intercession of Saint Felix. To him, he addressed himself in all his necessities; by his prayers, he begged grace in this life and glory after death. He describes at large the holy pictures of the history of the Old Testament, which were hung up in the church of Saint Felix, inflamed all who beheld them and were as many books that instructed the ignorant. We may read with pleasure the pious sentiments each sight gave Saint Paulinus. He relates a significant number of miracles wrought at his tomb, as persons cured of various distempers and delivered from dangers by his intercession to several of which he was an eyewitness. He testifies that he had frequently experienced the most practical effects of his patronage and had been speedily succored by having recourse to him. Saint Augustine also gave an account of many miracles performed at his shrine. It was not formerly allowed to bury any corpse within the walls of cities.
The church of Saint Felix, out of the walls of Nola, not being comprised under this prohibition, many devout Christians sought to be buried in it, that their faith and devotion might recommend them after death to the patronage of this holy confessor upon which head Saint Paulinus consulted Saint Augustine. The holy doctor answered him by his book, On the Care for the Dead1: in which he shows that the faith and devotion of such persons would be available to them after death, as the suffrages and good works of the living on behalf of the faithful departed are profitable to the latter.
Butler, Alban. The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints. Compiled from Original Monuments and Authentic Records, vol. 1. Dublin: James Duffy, 1866.
Edited by Michael Murphy. Used with permission.
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