The Word Among Us

May 2008 Issue

The Saint of the First Red Cross

How Camillus of Lellis Became an Ambassador of Mercy

By: Louise Perrotta

The Saint of the First Red Cross: How Camillus of Lellis Became an Ambassador of Mercy by Louise Perrotta

If you’ve ever been tempted to think that you’re not cut out for sanctity, consider the case of Camillus of Lellis. Here is a saint—the patron of hospitals, health care workers, and the sick—whose burning love for God effected a widespread reform of patient care. “I’ll never forget the sight,” wrote one person who saw six-foot-six Camillus in action. “When he was attending a sick person, he looked like a hen with her chicks or like a mother at her child’s bedside.”

And yet for the first third of his life, nothing about Camillus suggested a saint in the making. The man who would become such a gripping image of God’s mercy started out as a weak and disadvantaged character who was in pitiful need of mercy himself.

Expecting the Worst. The story of Camillus begins auspiciously enough. His devout mother, Camilla, was childless and nearly sixty when he was born, on May 25, 1550. Wondering neighbors in her small Italian town called her St. Elizabeth, after John the Baptist’s mother, and saw the pregnancy as a miraculous answer to her prayers. And like other expectant mothers of saints, Camilla had a prophetic dream: She saw her son wearing a big red cross on his chest, leading others who were dressed the same way.

But here the pious story takes an unexpected turn. Because prisoners of the day wore a cross as they were led to execution, Camilla misinterpreted her dream to mean that Camillus was likely to meet a bad end as a criminal gang leader.

She fretted as he grew into a wild and moody boy who was easily influenced by the wrong crowd. Often before her death, when Camillus was thirteen, she would tell him her dream in order to warn him away from the fate she foresaw. We can only imagine how her gloomy predictions affected him.

At nineteen, Camillus joined his father, a professional soldier who had been fighting for various armies in their incessant regional wars. Before Camillus saw action, however, both fell sick, and his father died.

Suddenly sobered, Camillus decided to pursue a better life. He even vowed to become a Franciscan. But his resolve was short-lived, and he came away from his brief military experience with two more liabilities: an addiction to gambling and a festering leg sore that refused to heal.

No Angel of Mercy. If you were wealthy in Renaissance Italy, your ailments were treated at home by private doctors and nurses. If you were poor, like Camillus, you traveled to one of the urban charity hospitals founded by pious benefactors and overseen by religious groups.

Many of these hospitals were grand buildings with large, high-ceilinged wards dominated by beautiful altars where the sick could easily attend Mass. But given the volume of needs and the limitations of funds and medical knowledge, they were also noisy, smelly, unhygienic places where patients sometimes slept two to a bed. Many of the hospital attendants were unfeeling and incompetent, ignoring patients’ basic needs. Some they hauled away for burial without checking to make sure they were really dead!

Because the work was messy, risky, and poorly paid, these aides had a high turnover rate. Anyone who applied was generally hired on the spot, no background check, no questions asked. This was especially true at the “hospitals for the incurables,” which treated patients so ravaged by disease—most especially, syphilis—that no one else wanted them.

Camillus made his health care début as an aide at one of these hospitals, Rome’s St. James of the Incurables, in exchange for treatment of his leg injury. He was soon fired for picking fights and slipping away to play cards whenever his supervisors turned their backs. As he regretfully told a friend much later, he lived for gambling then and cared nothing for the sufferings of the sick.

“Give Me Time, Lord.” A soldier of fortune once again, Camillus fought and gambled throughout Italy for the next four years. One November day, as he stood shivering and begging in front of a church, he learned that the local Capuchin friars were hiring workers for a building project. Remember that vow you once made? the young man’s conscience said. Here’s your chance to reform. But when his traveling and gambling buddy, Tiberio, said to forget it and began walking in the opposite direction, Camillus followed meekly behind.

They had covered twelve miles when, late at night, Camillus could resist God’s call no longer. He shook himself free and began running back to the Capuchins. The grace of the moment was so strong, he said afterwards, that he covered the distance “like a greyhound,” despite his ever painful leg.

The next months were rocky, especially when Tiberio appeared and tried to lure Camillus away. He held on—just barely—until February 2, 1575: “the day of my conversion.” It happened as Camillus was riding back to the monastery on a packhorse loaded with provisions. He was mulling over what one of the Capuchins had told him about living for God and fleeing sin, when he was suddenly overcome by two overwhelming realizations: the miserable state of his soul and God’s great mercy.

Camillus knelt on the deserted road for a long time, racked by sobs. “Lord, I have sinned. Oh my God, for so long I have ignored you and have not loved you! Forgive me, and give me time to make amends.”

The First Red Cross. From that moment, Camillus made his life an expression of love for God and neighbor. He discovered prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. He tried—three times—to join the Franciscans, but was regretfully refused because of his leg ailment. His new confessor, St. Philip Neri, helped him to recognize this seeming setback as a sign of where God wanted him.

The “new” Camillus returned to Rome and St. James Hospital; by 1579 he inspired such confidence that he was named administrator and personnel manager. Knowing now that serving the sick was a way to love and serve Jesus present in them, Camillus put a priority on teaching the aides to respect the dignity of their patients.

But progress was slow, and Camillus knew it—for one thing, because he hid between the beds to observe the aides’ behavior when he wasn’t in sight. Pondering the problem on the feast of the Assumption in 1582, he finally saw a solution: a congregation of well-trained men who would tenderly serve the sick for love of God and not for money. As the idea evolved, Camillus decided that he could do this best as a priest.

Five co-workers joined enthusiastically in this new venture, and it quickly became reality. Within just a few years, newly ordained Fr. Camillus was overseeing a growing and officially recognized religious order, the Ministers of the Sick.

On their habits, they wore the great sign of the Father’s love for his children: what else but a red cross?

“I Will Help You.” Twice in those challenging early years, Camillus heard Jesus encouraging him to persevere: “Why are you troubled, you coward? Go on and I will help you, for this is my work and not yours.”

Taking Jesus at his word, Camillus instilled his group with a “go anywhere, do anything” spirit of dedication. “If no sick and needy people could be found in the world,” he said, “we ought to go in search of them and dig them up from under ground to do them good and be merciful to them.”

It was not a group for the faint-hearted. Ministers of the Sick took a vow to serve regardless of possible danger to their own lives. In 1589, three of them made that sacrifice after contracting typhus from Spanish soldiers miserably quarantined on galleys near Naples. They were the first of many.

In 1590, five more died in Rome, as they worked among the thousands of beggars who had been rounded up and crammed into one of the hospitals during a famine and plague epidemic. “Sixty thousand people died in the city that year,” wrote Fr. Sandro Ciccatelli, who worked alongside Camillus and wrote his first biography. Fr. Ciccatelli’s vivid descriptions of conditions are not for the fainthearted either.

Tender Mercy. Mercy was at the heart of the health care reform that Camillus introduced, and Camillus exemplified it best. It started at the hospital door, where he met new patients, with special attention to those who seemed sad or distressed. He hugged them, washed their feet, made sure they had a clean bed—anything to make them feel at home.

Their spiritual health was his first concern. Were they right with God? Did they know he loved them? Did they want confession? Could they receive Communion?

Camillus conferred with the doctors to learn about medical treatments and procedures. He found out which foods were suitable for specific illnesses and what needed to be done on rounds. He made up lists of tasks to carry out—practical points regarding patient comfort and hygiene. Going from bed to bed, he adjusted linens, bandaged wounds, comforted, clipped toenails, waved away flies. No need was too small.

“Father, rest yourself!” some of the sick begged Camillus, seeing him weary and in pain from his leg sore. He would answer with a smile, “My children, I am your servant and must do whatever I can to help you.”

The Precious Blood of Jesus. Camillus was known and deeply loved for his holiness, but he never did become a picture-perfect saint. “He was melancholy by nature,” wrote Fr. Ciccatelli—except when he was serving his beloved Redeemer in the sick: “Then he would shake off his dullness and be merry and cheerful. Sometimes, carried off into ecstasy, he would go leaping and dancing through the hospital.”

Camillus had never been moderate by nature either, and one can imagine that his impassioned expressions of love for God and neighbor could be disquieting. Once, lost in prayer at a patient’s bedside, he levitated into a heavy curtain rod and canopy, which fell onto the sick man and severely injured him. Fortunately, Camillus also had the gift of healing.

Camillus was keenly aware of his faults and sincerely believed that he was a great and undeserving sinner. At the same time, he had absolute confidence in the Father’s mercy, revealed in Jesus’ death. This is why, during his last illness, he commissioned a painting of Jesus on the cross, between two angels offering chalices of his blood in atonement for sin.

To give him greater confidence, Camillus wanted the blood “bright red” and plentiful.. The image may not be to everyone’s taste. But its effect on Camillus was anything but somber. As a priest friend said: “When he turned his thoughts to the precious blood of Jesus Christ, such hope would spring up in him! He felt sure he would be saved by the power of that blood and would be allowed to go straight to heaven.”

Camillus went to that reward on July 14, 1614, with the painting before his eyes.

Louise Perrotta is an editor for The Word Among Us. Information about St. Camillus and his followers today is available at camillians.org and ctfmercy.org.

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