The Ministers of the Infirm are known throughout the world as Camillians. This Order is made up of priests and brothers who as religious have the same rights and obligations. The Order does not exclude activity in parishes, teaching or other activities, but as its Constitution says, a religious should dedicate himself ‘to the practice of works of mercy for the sick’ and ensure that ‘human being is placed at the center of care in the world of health.’
The members of the Order take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, and consecrate their lives for the service to the sick, even when they are infectious, as regards their spiritual and corporeal needs, even at the risk to their own lives. Faithful to this commitment, hundreds of Camillians died serving the sick infected with plague. Until the death of the saint, the Order had houses and engaged in activity in Italy alone, despite the fact that it had tried, without success, to open foundations in Spain and France.
The Order began to have its own centers of care only at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Prior to that date it only possessed residential houses which were used for the training of candidates for Camillian life or to receive the sick Camillians. The religious were almost maintained through alms and their work was totally unpaid.
At the time of Camillus, hunger, wars, plagues, epidemics and natural disasters attracted the attention of the Order. In response to a request made to him by the Pope, Camillus sent his religious to Hungary to look after wounded and sick soldiers. In this way one can state that Camillians were the precursors of the International Red Cross Society, whose founder was inspired by seeing Camillians at work when helping the wounded of so many wars in Europe during the nineteenth century. Today the Order has its own organization to provide help in emergencies – the Camillian Task Force.
In 1643 the Order established a house in Madrid. This was the first foundation of Camillians outside Italy. The second foundation in Europe was in Portugal in 1854. In 1736 the Camillians of Spain went to Lima in Peru. The rapid growth of the Order in Peru allowed the Order to found new communities in Bolivia, Columbia, Chile, Ecuador and Mexico.
By 1780 the Order had the highest number of religious, houses and Provinces since its foundation. The religious numbered about 680, the communities numbered 70, and these were distributed between six Provinces and two Vice-Provinces. From that time until the end of the nineteenth century the Order encountered grave difficulties because of the interference by the civil authorities of Europe and Latin America. These difficulties led the Order almost to extinction. Within the space of ten years the Order lost its houses in Portugal, Spain, the Americas, and the South and North of Italy. At that time, the specific activity of the Order was limited. The religious stopped working hospitals and no longer assured corporeal care for the sick. They only provided spiritual care to the dying in private homes. For this reason, they were known as the ‘fathers of good death’. The suppression of the Order and secularization had a negative impact on the personal and community life of the religious.
When everything seemed to be lost, the Order revived and returned to its origins through spiritual renewal, the re-establishment of fraternal life within communities concentrating its activities on corporeal and spiritual care for the sick. Within a few years, the communities in Italy gained new energy and intensified promotion of vocations, and the Order discovered the importance of expanding and opening up new roads. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Order had just thirty communities and number of religious did not reach the figure of 200.
The resources available were few but the enthusiasm was great. In a short time the religious founded communities in Germany, Austria and Poland. They became established in the United States of America, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ireland and Netherland. Subsequently Australia also welcomed the sons of St. Camillus. The Order stopped being exclusively Italian and European, and became universal.
In 1946, after the Second World War, five religious left for China, but they were expelled by the communist government in 1952. Therefore, they moved to Taiwan, and in the same year they also arrived in Thailand. In 1975 it fell to the Philippines to receive Camillians. Here the development was so rapid that in 1997 it was raised to the status of a Province. Camillians began their foundation in India in 1980. Today the Camillians are present, also, in Vietnam and Indonesia.
Africa was not forgotten. In 1959 Tanzania was the first nation of this continent to receive Camillians, and Tanzania was followed by Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Kenya, Madagascar and Uganda. The option for the poor was the most burning reason. Those countries of Africa where Camillians work are some of the poorest in the world. In the Americas they established themselves in the USA, Brazil, Mexico, Haiti, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Camillians also directed their attention to Georgia and Hungary.
From these facts one can see that the Order, which for centuries was almost exclusively Italian or European, has by now become universal and is walking towards the coming true of the prophecy of St. Camillus: ‘The time will come when this small plant will spread all over the world’. Indeed, half of the religious today live outside Europe.
The geographical expansion of the Order was followed by important innovations. Amongst these we may list the birth of Congregations for women: the Women ministers of the Infirm, The Daughters of St. Camillus, The secular Institute for Women missionaries of the Infirm ‘Christ the Hope’, the Stella Maria Institute, the Camillian Missionary Handmaidens, the Handmaidens of the Incarnation, the kamillianische Schwestern and the Lay Camillian Family.
In 1987, the Order opened the Camillianum in Rome, the first International Institute for the Theology of Pastoral Care in Health in the world. The Order has created training centers for pastoral care in various nations. Another activity that projects Camillians inside the Church is the animation and coordination of pastoral care at diocesan level and in various countries at a national level. In addition, the Order has as its goal the specific training of religious in the ecclesiastical and health sciences. It has specialists in Holy Scripture, morality, bioethics, pastoral care, hospital management etc.
The Order has always paid special attention to the sick at the terminal stage of their illnesses. Faithful to its traditions, it has now taken up palliative care, especially in its own health-care settings, and pays special attention to the spiritual dimension of the dying and their family.
In the past plagues called Camillians to heroism. Today there are many people along the path of life asking for help from the sons and daughters of St. Camillus, who are faithful to their commitment to serve these people. They bear witness with their lives to Christ’s ever present love for the sick. They are an authentic school of charity.