By CAROLE BRESLIN
While most people in the United States associate a red cross on a white field as the symbol of the International Red Cross organization, it was actually used by a Catholic priest several hundred years before Henry Dunant helped found the Red Cross. Perhaps Dunant knew of Camillus De Lellis and the work he did to help the sick who suffered so much in the hospitals of his time, when the future saint founded the Clerks Regular, Ministers of the Sick in the late 16th century.
How did a man of worldly pursuits end up as a saint? Like a few other saints, he hit rock bottom from which the only place to go is up. Camillus was born in 1550 at Bocchianico, Abruzzi, located opposite Rome on the east coast of Italy.
Historians speculate that he became an impetuous man partly because his mother was nearly 50 years of age when he was born, thus lacking the energy to keep up with a recalcitrant son — she died when he was only 12 years old. The difficulty could have developed because he grew quickly in size, finally reaching a height of 6 feet 6 inches.
As a teen he joined his father with the Venetian forces that went to fight the Turks in 1567. He most likely developed further vices during this time, such as gambling. His service did not last more than a few years as a result of a disease that developed in his leg, a disease that would afflict him for the rest of his life. In 1571, the same year as the defeat of the Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, Camillus entered the San Giacomo hospital for incurables in Rome where he became both patient and servant.
By 1574, at the age of 24, De Lellis had been released from the hospital and traveled to Naples. While there, he claimed he was a man of great evil. It seems his greatest vice was excessive gambling, which was not only against Church teaching but also against the civil law banning reckless games of chance.
His addiction had left him destitute. He lost his fortune, including the very shirt off his back. Brought to such poverty, he joined the Franciscans, something he had vowed to do before but had never fulfilled. He joined the Capuchins of Manfredonia — about 125 miles down the east coast of Italy from Abruzzi — where he became a laborer.
While there his conversion to a virtuous life following Christ was strengthened and confirmed by the Capuchins. Sadly, his wound refused to heal. The leaders of the order had to deny him entrance to their community because of the incurable affliction. After leaving them, he returned to Rome and went once again to the hospital San Giacomo to care for the patients.
So great were his gentleness, charity, and skill that the heads of the hospital made him superintendent. While working, he continued his penances and spiritual observances, taking St. Philip Neri as his spiritual director.
Camillus saw that the patients were poorly cared for by the inability to get qualified persons to assist at the hospital. Even the ones that the hospital had employed were former criminals. Dissatisfied with the level of care the sick were receiving, Camillus decided to found an order whose members would dedicate themselves to the sick and suffering.
With the approval of Neri, he received funding from a sponsor to complete his seminary studies. Those who ran the hospital, however, tried to thwart his every move to change. Disgruntled with their apathetic attitude toward the sick, and against the advice of Philip Neri, he and his associates left San Giacomo and went to the Holy Ghost hospital to begin anew with their care of the sick.
As the saying goes, “If you are not being persecuted, you must not be doing God’s will.” De Lellis must have been doing God’s will, since he once again met with considerable opposition. Needless to say, he persevered with his brother servants in making beds, washing wounds, and preparing the patients for a happy death in the arms of Holy Mother Church.
In 1585, having accomplished so much by the age of 35, Camillus employed a larger house to accommodate the growing numbers of men joining in the work. With the advent of the plague, these men served fearlessly and tirelessly to care for the sick and dying.
The people of Naples, the city where he had reached the bottom, requested that he return to help their sick. He went to Naples with 12 associates and founded a new house. When galleys arrived and they were not allowed to land because they carried passengers with the plague, he and his men went out to the ships to care for the men. Two of his men died, giving their lives for the sick.
Three years later he went back to Rome where Pope Gregory XIV approved his congregation as a religious order. The men continued to serve the sick and suffering during the years when disease and famine were sweeping through Rome.
War again loomed on the horizon as hostilities broke out in Hungary and Croatia. St. Camillus and his followers rushed to tend the injured soldiers, marking the beginning of the first military field ambulance. The tent in which the Camillians tended the soldiers suffered an attack and was burnt to the ground, killing two of the men. All that survived the attack was a habit having a white cloth with the red cross sewn on it; the cloth symbolized their work done in the name of God.
This emblem became the mark of the order founded by St. Camillus.
Camillus continued to serve the sick as superior of his order, despite the persistent pain in his leg, until 1607. He then stepped down to serve as vicar. His desire to serve the suffering was so strong that he resorted to crawling to help the sick because he could no longer walk. His order had spread throughout Italy and Hungary by the time of his death in 1614.
He died in 1614 after receiving the final anointing and giving his men his last words of advice. Although he died on July 14, since the United States celebrates the feast of Kateri Tekakwitha on July 14, his memorial is celebrated on July 18. His remains are in the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Rome.
Dear St. Camillus, assist all those who are suffering from war and famine in this world. By your intercession, we pray, especially assist the health-care workers in our country to hold true to the will of God in preserving life and saving souls. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)