“Who was that saint who was a mercenary, Mom?”
St. Camillus de Lellis (feast day July 18) was the man in question. An earlier post gives more details of his life. However, in brief, here’s a thumbnail sketch of it. Born in the mid-1500s, he founded an order of religious men who dedicate their lives to the care of the sick and dying. But before be became the founder of a religious order, he was a soldier, a mercenary, a gambler, and overall rowdy fellow. His mother, who was nearing age 60 when he was born, had a dream in which she saw him wearing a cross on his chest. Those condemned to death wore crosses on their chests on their way to their execution, so she feared that he would grow up to be a criminal or leader of criminals. She died when he was about 13 and didn’t see his rowdy adolescence and young manhood. I assume she continued to intercede on his behalf after her death — and her prayers were answered. By the time he was 25, his life turned around and he dedicated his remaining years to care of the sick.
Today we take it for granted that Christians/Catholics will care for the sick and dying. We have many hospitals and religious orders that do just that. But in his time, it was a new idea. Sick and dying people who found themselves in hospitals rather than receiving care from loved ones in their beds at home were often neglected, fed as little as possible, sometimes beaten and even taken to the morgue before they were actually dead. Camillus believed that was wrong and set about to change that reality. He began working in a hospital from which he had been ejected as an unruly patient. He got rid of employees who abused patients and brought in others who would treat their patients with care and compassion. As he explained, “We want to assist the sick with the same love that a mother has for her only sick child.” It was not to be just a job or an impersonal service. In caring for the sick, the understanding of St. Camillus and his brothers in the order was that they were caring for Christ as they cared for the sick and dying.
Camillians were among the first to go out onto battlefields and care for the injured and dying. In this, they preceded today’s Red Cross by approximately three centuries. The red cross on a black cassock worn by Camillus and his followers was a reminder to them that hospitals, like churches, were also houses of God and the voices of the sick were music in God’s garden.
The life of Camillus de Lellis is a reminder to us that God does not call perfect people to do great works. God calls everyday, ordinary people to step up and try to make things better in the day to day world of their lives. Those who have not suffered a bit, gotten bumped around a bit by life, or even crashed into chasms of suffering from which they could not emerge without help are generally not going to be as capable of letting God work through them. If we think we can do whatever it is ourselves, then we don’t let the power of God burst through us to do it so much better. Saints like Camillus de Lellis show us how much can be done when we let God lead.