A 100 years after St. Felix’s death, St. Paulinus of Nola told his story, adding without discernment appealing legends that had accumulated over the years. But we can trust the unadorned factual outline of Felix’s life.
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 right-hand man. 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.
from Voices of the Saints, by Bert Ghezzi
Image credit: Felix of Nola, Saint, beated and hidden by a spider's web by , 15th century. Public Domain via Wikimedia.