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 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. The joyous birth was unfortunately overshadowed by the lingering images his mother took away from her dream. The saintly woman died with anguish in her heart when her son was only thirteen.
Growing to become a strapping 6’6” tall, young Camillus was the terror of his townspeople. He followed his father Giovanni de Lellis, an army captain, into the adventurous and romantic career of a mercenary on an Italian peninsula wracked with wars, from fighting with or against the French and skirmishes with the Turk’s.
Like many risk-seeking young soldiers, he became a gambler. 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 Turks, he limped along the road back to his hometown with his father, who took ill along the way. They received care, but Camillus’ wound did not heal, and the 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, he decided to turn about and abandon his companion.
Camillus went to work at a Capuchin monastery in Manfredonia, 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 a spiritual epiphany. He asked to be taken in among the Capuchin Franciscans but was rejected as he did not have 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. With no other means of paying for his treatment, Camillus began attending to the sick and the dying, both physically and spiritually.
Yet, unfortunately, Camillus still gambled and 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 Jesuits and began studies with youth now far younger than him. He was teased mercilessly by his classmates, but he accepted this as he worked toward his education. The way now seemed clear, but his wound reopened and caused him to seek medical treatment again.
A chastened Camillus found his way back to the hospital with the help of religious friends, who gave him a letter of introduction to help smooth his way. He was received with mixed feelings.
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 for God, not money.
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 started to spread. They called themselves the “Servants of the Sick.”
In 1586 with the Pope’s permission, 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. He then experienced another Spiritual Epiphany when the words, “This is my work, not yours,” rang loud and clear from his crucifix, and he boldly continued his life’s work.
In 1591 Pope Gregory XIV gave this ‘company of good men’ the status of an Order with the name ‘Order of the Ministers of the Infirm’, a name chosen by the Founder to indicate that his members should have Christ as their model, who said ‘I have not come to be served, but to serve and to give life’.
Camillus de Lellis died on July 14th, 1614, delighted to have seen his ministry spread throughout Italy. Benedict XIV, in recognition of the Founder’s spiritual heroism and in view of the many miracles obtained through his intercession, declared him blessed in the year 1742. Three years later, the same Pope added him to the list of the Saints.
Leo XIII, in the year 1886, proclaimed Saint Camillus patron of all hospitals and the sick, with Saint John of God. Pius XI, in 1930, declared him to be the Model and Protector of all who nurse the sick.
The Order of the Ministers of the Infirm began in August 1582 when St. Camillus was inspired to create a company of pious and good men who would serve the sick, voluntarily and out of love for God, with that same love that a mother has for her only child. The wish of Camillus was to replace the officials of a large hospital in Rome who ‘because their service was not motivated by authentic love did not do their duty towards the sick.’
Today the Ministers of the Infirm are known throughout the world as the Camillians. This Order is made up of priests and brothers who, as religious, have the same rights and obligations within the Community.
The Order does not exclude activity in parishes or teaching but, as its Constitution lays down, a religious should dedicate himself ‘before anything … to the practice of works of mercy for the sick’ and ensure that ‘man is placed at the center of care in the world of health.’
The members of the Order profess the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and the fourth vow, to consecrate their lives ‘to service to the poor and infirm, even at risk to their own lives.