Servant of God (SG), Felix Maria Cappello, SJ
Born :October 9, 1879
Died : March 25, 1962
Felix, the tenth of eleven children, was born in the small village of Caviola di Falcade, in the heart of Italy’s Dolomites. He studied at the elementary school operated by his maternal uncle in a nearby village. Later he and his elder brother Louis studied at the pre-seminary school run by parish priests in Forno di Canale which required them to walk 3 miles daily. The following 5 years, the two brothers first studied at the interdiocesan seminary in Feltre before going to the major seminary in Belluno for their theology and completed their priestly formation together. Louis was ordained in January 1901 but Felix had to wait until April 1902 because he was not yet of canonical age.
Fr Cappello started off as a diocesan priest in 2 small towns but while doing parish work, he continued his studies and in a few years, he earned 3 doctorates: in theology from the University of Bologna, in philosophy from the Angelicum in Rome, and in canon and civil law from Rome’s Apollinare. He taught canon law at the Belluno seminary for 3 years and also Hebrew and Scripture in addition to writing for the diocesan weekly. He also found time to publish his first book on selected canonical questions.
When the seminary was taken over by the Stigmatine Fathers of Verona, Fr Cappello left for Rome with a fresh manuscript. He spent his time studying and writing, and supported himself by giving private instruction and holding repetitions and review sessions for seminarians. Fr Cappello spent a few days in Lourdes after he was rejected for the 2 Vatican positions he applied for although he was confident he had done well in the examinations. There he spent much time alone in prayer and when he left Lourdes on the day after spending the night in prayer at the deserted grotto, he had decided to become a Jesuit.
At thirty-four Fr Cappello joined the Jesuit novitiate in Rome on Oct 30, 1913 and readily submitted to novitiate living although he was by then quite well known among Italian canonists. He was asked to teach moral theology and canon law at the Leonine College in Anagni within his first year of noviceship and remained there until 1920 when he was transferred to Rome’s Gregorian University. Fr Cappello’s teaching career at Gregorian lasted 39 years until his retirement in 1959 during which time he taught moral theology and canon law, wrote articles and books and was consultor for several Sacred Congregations advising them in the preparation of their constitutions, and was spiritual director to many of Rome’s clergy.
He was a great teacher, appreciated for his clarity in explaining the Church’s canons which he knew by heart and he was also able to quote the opinions of other authors as his memory was phenomenal. His students remembered him fondly for instructing them to be humane in their application of law urging them with these words: “Principles are principles, and they remain firm and are always to be defended. But all consciences are not the same. In applying principles to consciences, we must do it with great prudence, much common sense, and much goodness. In your opinions and decisions never be severe. The Lord does not want that. Be always just, but never severe. Give the solution that offers the soul some room in which to breathe.”
Fr Cappello was not only well known as a teacher because he was able to give brief but sound and good suggestions to all who sought his help but was equally well sought after as a confessor. He would hear the confessions of his Jesuit brethren but also priests, bishops and cardinals as well and would do so at St Ignatius Church, a stone’s throw from his residence at the Gregorian, that it was known as “Fr Cappello’s church” and he in turn became “the confessor of Rome.”
Fr Cappello continued his confessional apostolate even after he retired from teaching in 1959 and took on additional tasks as a member of several commissions preparing drafts for Vatican Council II.
Fr Cappello became ill on March 22, 1962 and was by then eighty-three years of age. He felt weak and had periodic vomiting spells and could not sleep. The next morning he continued to celebrate Mass although with great effort and developed a chill and fever in the afternoon and was given the anointing that evening. During his last hours he frequently prayed: “Sweet Heart of Jesus.” He died at ten minutes to one on March 25 on the feast of Our Lord’s Incarnation.
His funeral which took place at St Ignatius Church was attended by many of his students from the Gregorian as well as Rome’s faithful, clergy, religious, bishops and cardinals who were all his penitents. They came not only to bid him goodbye but to ask for his continued intercession in heaven. His remains were brought back to St Ignatius Church and placed near the spot where his confessional had been. Fr Cappello’s cause was initiated in the diocese of Rome in 1987.