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“Why are you afraid? Do you not know that this is not your work but mine?”
In a mystical vision while at prayer, St. Camillus de Lellis heard Christ speak those words from a wooden cross. Who was the gentle man whom Christ called to do his work—founding a religious order known for their ministry to the sick and dying?
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Camillus de Lellis was born in 1550 at Bacchianico in the kingdom of Naples. His mother died when he was young. His father—an officer in both the Neapolitan and French armies—was not there to raise him. Sent to live with uncaring relatives and without parental guidance, young Camillus learned the basics of reading and writing, but had no other education. With few other options, he enlisted in the Venetian army at age 16.
During his years in the military, Camillus developed a passion for cards and gaming. As his addiction to gambling grew stronger, the young man lost his life savings, his weapons … everything he owned. Now indigent and in need of food and shelter, Camillus was forced to support himself by driving a donkey cart and working in a Capuchin friary in Manfredonia.
When he was 25, Camillus was deeply affected by a sermon delivered by the Capuchins’ superior. Thinking about it as he rode away, he stopped his horse, fell to his knees and cried to heaven for mercy. He gave up gambling and sought admission to the religious order, entering the novitiate. The Capuchins refused to accept him, however, due to concerns over his health. Eight years earlier, while fighting the Turks, Camillus sustained a leg wound that never healed.
Having been denied the opportunity to enter religious life, Camillus traveled to Rome, where he was admitted to the Hospital of St. James. There, medical staff tried unsuccessfully to treat his leg wound. It was eventually determined to be incurable. But by this time, Camillus had slipped into the dual roles of patient and caregiver, providing compassionate care for patients who were not well treated by the hospital staff. In Rome, Camillus followed an ascetic lifestyle, doing penance and wearing a hairshirt. When his injury made it impossible for him to walk, he would crawl to the bedside of sick patients to offer them help and encouragement.
He sought spiritual direction from a popular local confessor, Fr. Philip Neri, who was himself was destined for sainthood.
Concerned that patients at the hospital received poor attention from the hospital’s staff, Camillus looked for a solution. He invited other pious young men to join him in caring for the sick. Eventually, he decided that he should found a religious order to work in hospitals and medical centers. But before he could do that, he would need to be ordained to the priesthood. With the blessing of his spiritual director, Father Neri, and financial sponsorship from a wealthy donor, he entered the seminary. Camillus was ordained on Pentecost Sunday 1584 by the bishop of St. Asaph (Wales), Lord Thomas Goldwell, the last surviving Catholic bishop in Britain.
Fr. Camillus and his companions began work at the Hospital of the Holy Ghost, where they ministered to the sick and dying. There he founded the Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers to the Sick—better known as the Camillians.
Later, he organized a ministry to soldiers on the battlefield. Camillian priests were easily identified by the large red cross emblazoned on their black cassocks That cross—signifying charity and service—remains the symbol for the Camillian order today. It was the first “Red Cross,” helping wounded soldiers hundreds of years before the International Red Cross was established.
One of the challenges facing Camillus and his companions was the spread of the bubonic plague. They cared for plague-stricken victims in Rome and on board the vessels that docked in the city’s harbor. During that time, several miraculous healings were attributed to Camillus. Many thought that he and his companions skillfully turned away the plague and the ensuing famine. And so, for a time, he was called the “Saint of Rome.”
Camillus also came up with a solution to another problem of his era: lacking modern medical technology, there was often a risk of burying alive a person who only appeared to be dead. After learning of several such cases, Camillus instituted a policy requiring the Brothers of his Order to wait at least fifteen minutes after a person seemed to have drawn his last breath before removing the body for burial.
In 1586, Pope Sixtus V granted Camillus and his followers the canonical status of a Congregation and assigned to their care the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Rome. Two years later they expanded to Naples. In 1591, Pope Gregory XV raised the Camillians to the status of an Order, establishing a fourth vow unique to the Camillian Order: “to serve the sick, even with danger to one’s own life.” In 1594, Camillus led the Order to Milan, where they served at the city’s largest hospital.
The Camillian Order continued to spread to hospitals throughout Italy and into Hungary and Croatia. Camillus resigned his post as Superior General of his Order in 1607, but continued to serve as the Camillians’ Vicar General. In 1613, he accompanied the new Superior General on a tour of all the hospitals throughout Italy where the Order served. While on that tour, Camillus fell ill and died in Rome on July 14, 1614.
Camillus was beatified by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742. Four years later, he was canonized. July 18 was chosen as his memorial because, at that time, July 14 was the feast of St. Bonaventure. (In the United States, July 14 is now the memorial of St. Kateri Tekakwitha.)
St. Camillus is the patron saint of the sick, of hospitals, of nurses and nursing groups, of physicians, and of gambling addicts. The order he founded now numbers over 1,200 priests and brothers and operates in 35 countries
Kathy Schifferis a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.