ST. CAMILLUS de LELLIS :
Founder of the Order of Hospitallers
On May 25, 1550, Camilla, the wife of Captain John de Lellis of a distinguished but impoverished aristocratic family was about to give birth at the native village of Bocchianico in the Abruzzi province of what is now Naples, Italy.
What was so astounding about this birth was that Camilla was already sixty years old at this time. Convinced that her child was destined to be a saint she hurried to a stable so that her son like Jesus could be born in similar circumstances on a bed of straw.
Unfortunately after such an auspicious beginning his parents had a rude awakening. First of all he grew to the astonishing towering heights of – 6 feet 6 inches tall. Far from saint-like their son grew up to be of a rebellious nature, reckless, quarrelsome with an irascible temper, a complete lack of self-discipline and restraint and virtually unschooled. This was probably due to the fact that his mother died when he was a teenager and his father who was a soldier of fortune neglected him.
When he was seventeen he went off with his father to fight with the Venetians against the Turks.
It was while in the army that he was severely wounded and developed a hideous repulsive and painful sore on his leg that became infected and was to torment him all his life. While undergoing treatment in the San Giacomo Hospital for the Incurables in Rome in 1571 he was both a patient and worked as a servant there. Fortunately his health improved but because of his quarrelsomeness and intolerable temper he was fired after nine months even if they appreciated his nursing talents. So he returned back to the Turkish war even if he was still suffering pain from his ulcerated leg.
Father and son were comrades in arms not only becoming mercenary soldiers of fortune but in gambling, their favorite vice.
When his father got terribly sick he had to be taken to a hospital where to everyone’s surprise he repented and even received the sacraments before he died. This affected Camillus so profoundly he decided to be a monk. But because of his past record no monastery would admit him.
This time back in the army Camillus became even worse getting into bad company and becoming such a compulsive gambler that it became a serious addiction. By 1574 he had lost all his money and military equipment and found himself a hungry homeless man in Naples without any more wars to fight begging outside a church for money. A rich man came by and gave him not only money but a note telling him where he could find work-in a monastery.
Recalling a vow he had made earlier to become a monk and hopeful that in so doing he might kick his gambling habit, he accepted work as a laborer constructing buildings at the Capuchin Convent of Manfredonia. This is when and where God’s grace touched him thanks to the guidance of the friars.
He seemed to hear God’s voice calling him to “Repent” and to “Serve Me”. So after talking to Father Angelo, a holy Capuchin monk, Camillus was reintroduced to Christianity and was a changed man.
So he vowed to amend his life and became a Capuchin. As he was praying he realized that God loved him inspite of being a gambler and a bad man. Later he learned that this great gift of love had to be shared. Unfortunately the sore in his leg made him unfit to be a monk as sound health was required for entrants to religious orders.
Back to San Giacamo Hospital
So he returned back to San Giacamo for treatment and to devotedly care for the sick especially for those who had no hope of ever getting well. This time his sincerity and talents were noted by the administrators till eventually he was made superintendent of the hospital!
At that time hospital care and conditions were at their most deplorable state. Hospital workers were only there for the money. Some were so unscrupulous that they stole from the patients. Many patients were buried while still alive. Some were even sadistic having been recruited from the criminal class. At best most were indifferent and uncaring.
It was into this distressing environment that a changed Camillus came determined to infuse an atmosphere of love. He sought to change this disreputable situation by organizing health-care workers who had a desire to serve out of charity and compassion. Unfortunately his efforts were met with jealousy and suspicion.
His confessor St. Philip Neri encouraged him to proceed with his dream of a team of trained nurses who would labor for Jesus Christ, seeing Him in each patient. Camillus was possibly the first in the history of Christianity, who conceived of this idea.
St. Neri also encouraged Camillus to become a priest so that he might be able to add to his nursing care the comforts of the sacraments.
So at the age of 32 he began studying grammar alongside the children. By dutifully applying himself to the study of theology and Latin he was finally ordained a priest at the age of 34 in 1584.
Founds the Order of Hospitallers or Servants of the Sick
Soon after this Camillus with only two other companions left San Giacamo to establish a model hospital in Rome and to lay the foundation for his congregation first known as the Congregation of Regular Cleric. Later it was known as Ministers of the Sick (The Camillians which is today called the Order of Hospitallers or the Congregation of the Servants of the Sick).
In 1591 Pope Gregory XIV recognized Camillus and his religious order which included both priests and brothers allowing them to wear a black habit with a bright red cross on it.
Thanks to the gifts from rich patrons the congregation grew and grew so that during the lifetime of Camillus he personally founded fifteen houses of his order and eight hospitals.
Organizes First Field Ambulance Unit
The first recorded incident of what would become “military field ambulances” or “field ambulance corps” was when in 1596 and 1601 his men went to Hungary and Croatia to serve wounded soldiers on the battlefields. (Incidentally J.H. Dunant conceived the idea of the Red Cross in 1859 when he saw the red cross on the habits of members of Camillus’s order as they were tending the sick and wounded on the battlefields of Solferino). He even established the first field hospitals.
He and his members volunteered for service even where no one else would even amid outbreaks of the plague in the infected ships that arrived in the Naples and Rome seaports.
Not content to wait for the sick to come to him Camillus would search the caves and catacombs of the city for the sick and suffering. He and his Servants of the sick were fearless for their own health.
This is not to say that he wasn’t among the sick and suffering himself. For forty six years he endured more or less unbearable pain from his leg wound besides a severed rupture and two persistent sores on the sole of his foot. Disregarding it all he called his ailments “five mercies of God” and to the very end he insisted on personally providing care for the most miserable cases even if it required superhuman effort on his part.
Because Camillus saw Christ in every sick person he treated he was accustomed to telling his fellow workers Christ’s own words: “I was sick and you visited me.”
His Death and Canonization
Camillus had just completed a visitation of all the Order’s hospitals when he died in Rome on July 14, 1614. At that time there were nearly 300 in his order that had spread to other nations, 15 houses of his Order and 8 hospitals!
It is said that God granted him the extraordinary power of prophecy and the gift of miracles. It is truly amazing that this once truculent gambler received personal revelation from God on many occasions.
It is no wonder that Camillus de Lellis was canonized in 1746 and was declared patron of the sick with St. John of God by Pope Leo XIII. He was declared patron of the nurses and nursing groups by Pope Pious XI. His feast day falls on July 14.
St. Camillus’s most characteristic charism was holy charity not only toward God but especially the sick and the dying, the poor and the suffering.
Thanks to Camillus who was far ahead of his age in both nursing and spiritual care later generations of nurses and others who care for the sick can now view their occupation as a genuine Christian vocation. Those of us who enjoy real care especially in a Catholic hospital are greatly in his debt.
St. Camillus is rightfully the patron of the sick, hospitals, doctors, nurses and nursing groups, because to the very end he was conscious that he was serving Christ himself.
SOURCES of REFERENCE:
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. III pp 134 – 136
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – pp 164, 165
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp 308 – 309
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – p 46
A Calendar of Saints – p 133
All Saints – pp 300 – 302
A Year With the Saints – July 14
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 324 – 326
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I pp 313 – 314
My First Book of Saints – pp 149 – 150
Saint Companion – pp 257 – 258
Saints for Our Time – pp 145 – 146
Children’s Book of Saints – pp 215 – 218
Voices of the Saints – pp 514 – 515
The Everything Saints Book – p 275
The Flying Friar – pp 38 – 41
Best – Loved Saints – pp 135 – 138
The Way of the Saints – pp 93 – 94
33 Saints for Boys and Girls – pp 30 – 36
Book of Saints – Part 5 – pp 14 – 15