He skipped school, gambled and brawled. From a young age, it may have appeared that Camillus de Lellis was born to lose considering his life began with an ominous sign. The truth, however, is that he was born to serve his brothers and sisters through dedication to helping the sick and dying. Camillus de Lellis was canonized in 1746 and ultimately declared the patron saint of the sick, of health care workers, and of hospitals.
At nearly 60 years of age, Camilla Compelli de Laureto had a dream. She dreamed that the son she was carrying would one day wear the emblem of a cross upon his chest, leading other men that wore the same emblem. The thought of this cross instilled a great fear in her, as the cross was used in those times to signify men that had been condemned to death on the gallows. With a deep-seated fear of her son’s future and the band he would one day lead, she gave birth to her son, Camillus, on May 25th, 1550.
Growing to become a strapping 6’6” tall, young Camillus was the terror of his townspeople. Quite naturally, he followed his father Giovanni de Lellis, an army captain, into the adventurous and romantic career of mercenary on an Italian peninsula wracked with wars, from fighting with or against the French to Venice and skirmishes with the Turk’s.
Like many risk-seeking young soldiers, he became a gambler, and although his career was often lucrative, he just as often found himself in dire financial straits, even going so far as to literally lose his shirt. After one military engagement, wounded above the ankle in a skirmish with the Turk, he limped along the road back to his hometown with his father, who took ill along the way. They were received into care, but Camillus’ wound did not heal and infection moved into his foot. His father died, and the young giant, now on his own, fell in with a companion who liked gambling and rioting quite as much as Camillus did.
The pair of them had fallen on hard times, so much so that Camillus stopped at a local church to receive alms of food for himself and his companion along with the destitute from the parish. A devout local man seeing him there inquired why such a strapping young man should require alms, and Camillus answered that his troop had disbanded and he was down on his luck. The man asked Camillus to visit his home for some hospitality, and he would find him employment.
His suffering urged him to take his acquaintance up on the offer, but his companion mocked him, wondering why big, bad Camillus would ever want to cast off his freewheeling lifestyle. Camillus began to follow his companion out of town, but upon meeting two monks riding the other way on mules, decided to turn about and abandon his companion.
Camillus went to work at a Capuchin monastery, helping them with construction projects and driving their mules to trade goods. On one of these occasions, he went to get some wine, and a priest had a spiritual conversation with him that caused Camillus to become inflamed with the desire for conversion. He asked to be taken in among the Benedictines, but was rejected as not having the proper education. The year was 1575, Camillus was 25 years old.
Camillus found himself in Rome where his festering wound would still not heal. He was admitted into the famous Hospital of St. James, where he encountered Father Philip Neri, later also canonized.
The charismatic Neri became his confessor and spiritual guide.
With no other means of paying for his treatment, Camillus began attending to the sick and the dying, both physically and spiritually. At the time, in most hospitals, the orderlies and nurses were themselves mercenaries who had no true calling to the profession; some of them were even present on the scene as a form of forced community service for various crimes.
The patients, most of who were in the process of dying, were horrifically neglected and abused. Bedclothes and bedding were seldom if ever replaced, patients were slapped about for having the nerve to ask for water — a situation seen as appalling to our former ruffian.
Yet, unfortunately, Camillus still gambled and as a result, fought. His actions led to his discharge from St. James when he had healed to some degree.
Camillus decided to find his way into the Benedictines and began studies with youth now far his juniors. He was teased mercilessly by his classmates, but he accepted this as he worked toward his education. The way now seemed cleared, but his wound reopened and caused him to seek medical treatment again.
Soon, Father Neri and the hospital staff of St. James discovered that Camillus had indeed converted. He was eventually given charge of the minor staff, and began to introduce reforms in patient treatment, pursuing their care with great zeal. Gradually, it came to him that this in itself was a religious calling, and he thought he might try to organize and lead a group of men to help him spread his reforms and dedicate themselves explicitly to the care of the sick and the dying.
Camillus suffered a moment of dejection when Father Neri opposed the scheme.
Nevertheless, Camillus pursued his ambition. At the age of 34, he became a priest, and assembled a group of religious and lay followers who began to practice his methods and teachings in Rome. The movement began to spread. They called themselves the “Servants of the Sick.”
The members of Camillus’ Order wore a red cross on their black cassocks and capes. This symbol distinguished them from other groups and also displayed their source of inspiration to those they cared for. When asked why, Camillus stated that this sign was to frighten the devil, for he continued to have a warlike disposition when it came to serving God. Camillus emphasized to his volunteers that the hospital was a House of God … a garden where the voices of the sick were music from heaven. During a particularly trying time, Camillus felt anxious about his efforts. It was at this time that the words, “This is my work, not yours,” rang loud and clear from his crucifix, and he boldly continued his life’s work.
Camillus de Lellis died on July 14th, 1614, delighted to have seen his ministry spread throughout Italy. Pope Benedict XIV beatified Camillus in 1742 and canonized him in 1746, calling him the “Founder of a new school of charity.” This new school looked at the sick and dying in a new light. Camillus once said, “The poor and the sick are the heart of God. In serving them, we serve Jesus, the Christ.”
You could say that Camillus revolutionized the way the sick and dying were treated. The tomb of St. Camillus is at the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena in Rome, beneath the altar.
The Mission Spreads
Before and throughout the 1800s, frequent epidemics, including the Black Plague, decimated the “Servants of the Sick”, but the Order continued to grow throughout Europe and worldwide. “To serve the sick, even with danger to one’s own life” ultimately became the Order’s fourth vow. This relentless dedication, regardless of mortal danger, became the heart of the Order’s constitution and the Formula of Profession.
St. Camillus’ feast day is celebrated annually on July 18th here in the U.S.A.
Today, the Order of Saint Camillus serves in 35 countries with a total membership of about 1,100 priests, brothers and students. Camillians continue to serve those in desperate need of medical care abroad, but also serve the geriatric population here at home, recognizing that this is a growing ministry.
In all cases, Camillian healthcare workers help the sick and dying with their physical needs, while also tending to their emotional and spiritual needs, so that they may feel through them the loving hand of God, even in their darkest hours.
Resting Place of St. Camillus
The tomb of St. Camillus is at the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena in Rome. Take a moment to view this beautiful church and see the altar close-up where thousands of faithful venerate St. Camillus.