Since the day I first cared about patron saints and feast days, I longed to have a saint who shared the calendar with my birthday. Sadly, every Catholic calendar I ever owned would be peppered with wondrous saints in January, like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John Neumann, St. Agnes, Sts. Timothy and Titus, ending with the finale of St. Thomas Aquinas. But January 14 would remain empty, and I would forlornly look away like some child who had never before seen a calendar.
Somehow my birthday seemed incomplete without a compatible saint, though I tucked that thought away as petulant. Most people I knew were born on significant saints’ feast days, like the Little Flower, St. John of the Cross, or St. Francis of Assisi. But I interiorly pouted, “Why can’t I have even a small, unknown saint on my birthday?” It resembled a whine in my memory, but still I felt lonely. It was an odd emotion to have on a joyous day of celebration.
Only recently did I discover St. Felix of Nola, who may not appear on the Catholic calendars we hang up in our homes, but nonetheless whose feast is celebrated every January 14. Like many of the early saints, his story gets lost in the shuffle of the hundreds and thousands of new Christians who were eventually canonized. But his story, though not well known, is still significant, especially today as Christians continue to be persecuted, tortured, and martyred all over the world.
Born to a Syrian who had been a Roman soldier, Felix renounced all of his possessions, distributing them to the poor. He became a priest, ordained under St. Maximus, who was tormented after the Emperor Decius couldn’t find St. Maximus (who was in hiding). Felix took his place, and he did so humbly and graciously. According to St. Paulinus of Nola, Felix was visited by an angel while imprisoned under Decius’s command. The angel released him from jail and then rescued Maximus from exile.
St. Paulinus, a clear devotee of St. Felix, wrote this poem as a tribute to him on the day he died, which eloquently describes how one can become a martyr without literal death:
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.
St. Felix is a perfect patron for those who are persecuted in the Faith. How ironic (Providential?) that a saint so far removed from us by history and time, whose epoch so little resembles ours, is truly a relevant saint and one whose courage can inspire all of us who aspire to sainthood – the white and red martyrs alike. For one like me who has always secretly desired to share my birthday with a saint’s feast day, the call to martyrdom has become clearer in recent years.
Every saint’s journey to Heaven involves martyrdom. If you desire Heaven, prepare to be a martyr. Most of us shudder at the thought, because we always and immediately imagine red martyrdom and the horrific bloodshed that continues today, especially in the Middle East. While it’s true that you or I may be called to a red martyrdom, we can be certain that our crown of sainthood will involve the cross of martyrdom – a white martyrdom. This is the martyrdom of the heart, a type of interior crucifixion that involves very intense spiritual, mental, and even physical trials (some or all of which are unapparent to others).
St. Felix reminds us that we must no longer live for ourselves, because even if we become imprisoned and tortured, God will protect and guide our souls to Heaven. We should never fear death, especially death of self, because when we die, we are filled with eternal glory. We are filled with the God of love Who is Love Himself. This should be cause enough for our joy.
During such a dreary time of year when many of us dread the extended hours of night, shortened days, and gray, drizzly, frigid weather, St. Felix is a sort of beacon for us. He is a Christmas saint in the sense that He points the way to Christ our Light, the Light who warms and illumines us with His very essence. On January 14, let us rejoice with St. Felix at this Light and humbly thank God for whatever path of life – and death – He chooses for us that will lead us to praise and honor Him forever.