Fr. Scott Haynes
He skipped school, gambled, and got in fights. He seemed born to be a troublemaker. He did not start out his life like a saint. But God chooses those of little account to spread the work of His Kingdom on this earth. God called him to serve the sick and the dying. In the end, Camillus de Lellis would be canonized and declared patron saint of the sick, nurses and of hospitals. His life marked a turning point in medical care as we know it today. It also marked the beginning of a brotherhood that now spans the world and provides leadership in healthcare through Christian charity and love.
On May 25, 1550, Camilla Compelli de Laureto gave birth to Camillus at age 60. She welcomed him with great joy, but she also had a lot of anxiety over his birth, not just because of her age, but mostly because of a strange dream that she had prior to his birth—a dream that profoundly disturbed her. As she was pregnant, she dreamed that her son had a cross on his chest and that he was leading other men with a similar cross. “An ominous cross,” she thought, for it was the sign of those condemned to death in the gallows. Her son, she feared, would end up a leader of a gang of criminals—condemned to death.
Thirteen years later, the saintly woman, at the age of 73, died with that anguish in her heart that she would not be able to raise her thirteen year old son to maturity. Camillus’ father, Giovanni de Lellis, an army captain, paid no attention to his wife’s dreams. But the wild boyhood of his son, given over to gambling and rowdy companions seems to have supported those fears. Camillus followed his father in a military career, and over the course of many years, lived recklessly with a compulsion for gambling. A leg injury resulting in numerous hospitalizations caused him a great deal of grief.
He resigned himself to a life as a construction worker at the monastery of the Capuchins in Manfredonia, Italy, after leaving the military. The Friars gradually discovered the natural goodness of the man beneath the rough exterior, and in 1575, at the age of 25, Camillus experienced a spiritual conversion and resolved to reform his life and dedicate himself to the service of God with the Capuchins. Still afflicted by his leg wound, Camillus de Lellis entered St. James’ Hospital in Rome, where he would live and work among his brothers, the sick. One night he had the inspiration to assemble a group of good men willing to dedicate themselves to the sick. Later on he took up studies for the priesthood and led an army of “Servants of the Sick” against the plague and epidemics that infested Rome. Ordained at the age of 34, Camillus might be what we today sometimes refer to as a “late vocation”.
Camillus chose a red cross as the distinguishing badge for the members of his Order to wear upon their black cassocks, and he taught his volunteers that the hospital was a house of God, a garden where the voices of the sick were music from heaven. Once when he was discouraged, he heard the consoling words from the crucifix, “This is my work, not yours.” After leading the movement throughout Italy, Camillus died on July 14, 1614. In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV proclaimed Camillus de Lellis blessed. The same Holy Father he canonized him in 1746, calling him the “Founder of a new school of charity.” This new school saw the sick in a new light. In Camillus’ own words, “The poor and the sick are the heart of God. In serving them, we serve Jesus the Christ.” Wherever the sick person was, there God was, and it became a place of celebration. The bed of the sick became an altar, the hospital a church. St. Camillus de Lellis, patron of the sick, pray for us.