On 14 July, the Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Camillus de Lellis, a Saint who ‘formed a company of heroes of charity, who dedicated themselves to serving the sick as a mother would’.
Newsdesk- (July 14, 2021, 23:35 Gaudium Press) At times we are tempted to think that only he who has never committed the slightest fault nor possessed any defect is truly a Saint, keeping his baptismal garment white and intact throughout his life. But how can we ignore, among the many Blesseds and Saints, the unquestionable holiness of St. Paul the Apostle, St. Augustine, or the one invoked as the first among the virgins in the Litany of All Saints, St. Mary Magdalene?
These are three outstanding cases of souls who were converted as adults, after having committed grave sins. God – Who is Mercy and Goodness – redeemed them through an outpouring of superabundant graces and called them to admirable missions at the service of Holy Church. By their fidelity to these graces, they have attained the honour of being raised upon the altars of the Church and have left, by the example of their lives, a luminous trace in the firmament of the Saints. Such is the life of St. Camillus de Lellis.
A dissolute soldier
Born in Bucchianico, Italy, on Pentecost Sunday, 1550, his childhood was marked by the pious upbringing of his mother, Camillus Compellis. Accustomed to running the house alone because of the long absences of her husband, Giovanni de Lellis – a great military mercenary – she knew how to create a harmony of discipline and kindness in her son’s education.
Gifted with a strong and impulsive character, the boy was attracted from an early age to the adventurous lifestyle of his father, a captain famous for having served in various European kingdoms. At the age of 17, Camillus traveled to Venice to join the fight against the Turkish Corsairs. Soon after, he met up with his father in Ancona, who had also decided to fight in Venice. But in his old age, Giovanni of Lellis was taken ill by a serious illness and died in his son’s arms halfway along the journey, before his son could take him back to Bucchianico.
Feeling lonely – as his mother had died a few years earlier – Camillus allowed himself to be drawn into the vices of gambling and drinking, so common in the rough and tumble attitude of those days. He became a vagabond and started to live off the money he earned in the taverns. He confessed, later, to have placed wagers on his own shirt because he had nothing else left to bet on, without, however, ever having given in to the temptation of stealing. And he affirmed with gratitude that God had preserved him from falling into the sin of impurity.
Around this time, Camillus began to feel a deep pain in his leg, on which a mysterious sore had appeared which remained all his life and became a decisive factor in his conversion. He sought treatment at the well-known St. James of the Incurables Hospital in Rome. Unable to pay the costs, he offered his services as a servant, and there he had his first contact with the world of the sick. Unfortunately, however, he was expelled a few months later because of his difficult temperament.
Partially cured, he reenlisted as a soldier and took part in the fighting in Tunisia. On his way back to Italy, a violent storm unexpectedly assailed his ship near Naples. Faced with the imminent risk of death, he vowed to wear the habit of St. Francis of Assisi if he escaped with his life. After the danger of the storm passed, he forgot the promise that he had made, and fell back into his inveterate vices and continued wandering around Italy.
Surrendered to the infinite love of Jesus
He gambled away all his possessions and was reduced to begging at the doors of the cathedral of Manfredonia. There, a charitable old man named Antonio di Nicastro, seeing that sturdy, strong-faced young man in such a miserable state, took pity on him and offered him a job as a labourer in the Capuchin friary where some work was underway. The recollected atmosphere and kind treatment he received there softened Camillus’ impetuous passions and made it possible for him to put his life in order.
He was 25 years old when he was sent to a nearby convent to collect a certain amount of alms which had been donated, on the Feast of Our Lady of Candlemas, February 2, 1575. He was walking alongside the convent’s pack mule when it suddenly stopped. After having exhausted, in vain, all his efforts to get the mule to continue, he started shouting at the poor beast, yelling insults as though it could understand. All in vain.
God was pleased to grant him the grace of seeing himself reflected in the behaviour of that irrational animal… Camillus realized that he had behaved like a stubborn mule throughout his life: the religious teachings received from his loving mother; the jolt in his conscience amidst the storm; the kindness of the guardian friar and his repeated efforts to make Camillus understand that the soul is a battlefield where only he who has the authentic courage to surrender himself into the hands of Our Lord Jesus Christ wins. Just as the mule stubbornly refused to move, he stubbornly refused to change!
He fell to his knees in the middle of the dusty road and, with a trembling hand, took from his pocket a Crucifix that an uncle had given him so long ago… raising it to his face, he contemplated the “figure of his God crucified, hanging and nailed to the Cross for love of him, to pay the horrendous and terrible punishment deserved for his innumerable sins”.1 With tears of repentance and yet filled with hope, he surrendered to the infinite love of Jesus and, like the warrior who goes into battle, decided to change his life. “Camillus de Lellis knew suddenly and without a doubt that he was, after all, a truly brave soldier”!
He had found his vocation!
Back in the convent, transformed, he asked for admission to the Order and became a Capuchin novice with the name of Brother. His brothers in the habit called him the “humble friar”,3 because of his efforts to compete for the last place, to be the servant of all, and to take on the most difficult and repugnant services. However, the wound on his leg worsened with the rubbing of the coarse fabric of the habit, and he was forced to return to the hospital. Seemingly recovered, he returned to the Capuchin friary and resumed community life, but the ulcer reappeared with greater force, forcing him to leave the Order.
For the third time, he was admitted to St. James’ Hospital, at the end of 1579. He was now a different man, eager to give himself completely to the service of the sick. From then until the day of his death – 35 years later – “his entire existence would be spent in the hospitals with no other desire than to exercise his ardent charity toward the poor sick”.4 The administrators, edified by his dedication and considering his remarkable ability, named him Master of the House, a position equivalent to that of an executive superintendent.
A prodigy confirmed the wisdom of this choice. St. Camillus had spent long hours encouraging and comforting a poor man, whose leg was to be amputated the next day. When he left him, the man was in such good spirits that he fell asleep peacefully. At the hour appointed for the amputation, the surgeons found that the leg inexplicably “was unexpectedly healed”.5
It was then that a burning desire arose in his soul to bring together men willing to give corporal and spiritual assistance to the sick, out of pure love for God, aware that serving them was nothing other than serving the Divine Saviour: I was “sick and you visited me” (Mt 25:36). They had found their vocation!
A company of heroes of charity
Camillus began by attempting to recruit some from among the hospital staff, but they were shocked at the idea of a life of such self-denial, without profit or payment. Thanks to the force of his good example and the growing fame of his virtues, however, he succeeded in starting a pious association to assist the sick. Religious and novices of various religious orders, above all of the Society of Jesus, often came to give of themselves with him in these works of charity. The Jesuit Fathers sent him young men in whom they discerned a vocation for this service. The Saint welcomed them with open arms and encouraged them: “Brothers, consider that the sick are the apple and the heart of God, and what you do for these poor people is done for God himself.”
However, Camillus aspired to much more: to form a company of heroes of charity, dedicated to serving the sick like a tender mother. He spent whole nights in prayer and mortified himself, imploring help from Heaven for such a work. He managed to gather together five leading men, who promised to follow him “in life and death, in prosperity, and in difficulties”.7 They improvised an oratory in a room of the hospital, where they gathered to keep the flame of the ideal alight. The holy Founder “looked like a Seraphim for the ardent exhortations he gave them”.
“This is My work, not yours!”
Nevertheless, men called to the works of God are not lacking in tribulations. One day, in response to envious calumnies, the hospital administration prohibited the meetings and had the oratory dismantled. That same night, full of affliction, Camillus spent a long time praying before his Crucifix. He asked for an inspiration, a light…immersed in these cogitations, he fell asleep and saw the image of the Divine Crucified Lord sweetly moving His head, telling him, “Fear not O fainthearted one. Go ahead, and I will help you and be with you.”
He awoke with his soul overflowing with joy! He told his companions about the vision and they decided to continue meeting in secret in the hospital chapel. However, new and greater difficulties arose. Doubt assailed him as to the reality of that night vision and, consequently, of the divine approval of the nascent institute. Full of pain, he prostrated himself once again before the venerable Crucifix. And behold, the Saviour detached his arms from the Cross, extended them towards him, and repeated with ineffable sweetness: “Why grieve thou, O fainthearted one? Continue the enterprise, and I will help you, for this is My work and not yours.”10
Strengthened by these words, Camillus, who wanted to become a priest to carry out his apostolate more effectively, entered the Roman College and was ordained a while later, at the age of 34. He gathered together his small group and they formed a community.
His way of life was approved by Pope Sixtus V in 1586, who gave the new institution the name of the Congregation of the Ministers of the Sick; they took as their habit a black cloak ornamented with a red cross, worn over the clerical cassock. Five years later, Pope Gregory XIV raised the institution to the rank of a religious order, with the name of the Order of Regular Clerics Ministers of the Sick. But it did not take long for it to become known as the Order of Camillians, honouring its Founder and first Superior General.
Unbounded dedication to the sick
With inexhaustible zeal, St. Camillus and his religious practiced their activities above all in the Hospital of the Holy Spirit, near the Vatican. The health care institutions of the time left much to be desired in terms of hygiene, facilities, and qualified professionals.
One can only imagine the suffering of the sick entrusted to the care of poorly paid and often rude staff. In addition, these patients were often housed in rooms where poor ventilation increased the proliferation of viruses, and a bad smell permeated the air. It was in this environment, which was repugnant to human nature and from which everyone tried to escape, that the Camillians spent the whole day, helping these unfortunate people with love and joy.
The holy Founder also extended his beneficial action to those in prison and to the dying. No matter how tired he was, his ardour never waned and his constancy was the greatest incentive for others to give more of themselves. The bravery of these heroes of charity shone even brighter at the time of the plagues and epidemics that ravaged those regions. “Without a moment’s hesitation, seeing their ranks decimated by death, they dedicated themselves to exhausting days of work caring for the plague-stricken,”; without worrying about their leg ulcers, which were always open, or about other illnesses that caused them real suffering, “they spent long hours in the hospital caring for the sick, almost without sleep, with a diet that was sufficient just so as not to die of hunger themselves.”
A work that today operates in 35 countries
The promising expansion of the Camillians throughout the entire Italian Peninsula opened for the Founder another frontier of combat: a hard struggle to consolidate and keep intact the charism of the institution. With humility and unshakeable firmness, he asserted his charism as a Founder not only against external objectors but also against rebellious religious members of his Order. Having won the victory in this battle, he had accomplished his mission in this world and could then depart to receive the so great reward (cf. Gn 15:1).
God did not delay in calling him: in mid-1614, at the age of 64, Camillus found himself obliged to stay in bed in an attempt to restore his health, which had been undermined by decades of intense activity. However, overcome by nostalgia for his beloved patients at the hospital of the Holy Spirit, and feeling that he would soon die, he longed to see them again. When the doctor allowed him to leave his room to breathe some fresh air, he sent for his spiritual sons to take him to the hospital, where, moved by emotion, he walked through the countless rows of stretchers and beds, saying goodbye to each one. Everyone wept as they sensed his affection and paternity.
Divine Providence even asked him to suffer a long and painful agony. On the evening of July 14, when the priest prayed: “Mitis, atque festivus, Christi Iesu tibi aspectus appareat – May the soft and joyful face of Jesus Christ appear to you”,13, he smiled and breathed his last.
The news of his death spread through the Eternal City and a crowd gathered in front of the convent, eager to pay their last respects to him, to ask for a grace, a cure, a conversion. Such was the uproar that the public authorities had to intervene to organize the queues and maintain order. This soldier of Christ enriched the Holy Church with a magnificent work which today, 400 years later, is active in 35 countries on five continents, making the light of his heroic and courageous charity shine among the sick and needy. Benedict XIV canonized him in 1746, and Leo XIII, in 1886, declared him Patron Saint of the Sick and Hospitals, together with Saint John of God.
Heralds of the Gospel Magazine, July/2014, n. 151, p. 32 to 35.
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Heralds of the Gospel Magazine, July/2014, n. 151, pp. 32-35.
Read More: Spirituality, Founder of the Order of the Ministers of the Sick, St. Camillus de Lellis, St. Camillus de Lellis: protector of the sick and of hospitals, Gaudium Press
Compiled by Sandra Chisholm