St. Camillus de Lellis – July 18 – “The Original Red Cross”
St. Camillus de Lellis is one of those saints that remain quietly in the background of our Catholic lives, despite having sown seeds that continue to bear fruit into our present day. He was born in Italy in the mid-1500s and lived to the age of 64. His mother died when he was thirteen and his father was in the military, so he did not receive as much attention and loving care as he should have as an adolescent. He grew up to be an agressive, hot-headed, compulsive gambler. He worked as a mercenary soldier, selling his services to whichever ruler’s army would pay him. Between stints as a soldier, he spent time working in a hospital for the incurably ill. But his gambling and agressive behavior cut short that employment and he returned to being a soldier, serving in the war against the Turks in 1569.
Following the war, when he was working in construction on a building at Manfredonia for the Capuchins, he was touched by a talk from the guardian of the community there and at the age of 25, his life changed. His legs had been injured when he was younger and they never really healed completely. He spent time in hospitals both receiving treatment and helping with the care of other patients. Following his conversion, he dedicated the rest of his life to caring for the ill and injured. He eventually became a priest and founded a religious order, the Fathers of a Good Death, in 1584. Wearing a red cross on their black cassocks, they cared for the sick, including victims of the plague, in hospitals, in the homes of their patients and on the battlefields. The order continued to grow through the years, and today they are known as Camillians (Clerks Regular Ministers to the Sick). Camillians work all over the world.
St. Camillus de Lellis was called the “Founder of a new school of charity” when he was canonized by Pope Benedict XIV in 1726. He taught that God is present in people confined to hospitals and sick beds, reminding his followers, “The poor and the sick are the heart of God. In serving them, we serve Jesus the Christ.”
A Camillian priest visited our parish last year, raising money for their work in the missions. He spoke compellingly about the people he had served and their stories. It was quite inspiring. When he introduced himself and his order, he told us that Camillians were the “original Red Cross” because of the color of the cross on their habits. Their work through the centuries in hospitals, battlefields and sick rooms would seem to bear that out.
Once again it seems that “God writes straight with crooked lines.” A mercenary, who is a compulsive gambler and brawler, with injured legs, becomes the founder of a group of men who spend their lives working to heal the sick and care for the dying – the patron saint of gamblers and nurses. Truly a life story to be told more widely.