St Camillus de Lellis, Founder of The Camillian Congregation and patron of the Sisters of Mercy

St. Camillus De Lellis was born on May 25, 1550. Before he was born his mother had a strange dream which caused her some anxiety. She saw her son with a cross on his chest leading other men with a similar cross. The red cross was worn by those condemned to death in the gallows. Her son, she feared, would end up a leader of a gang of criminals. Sadly, she died when he was thirteen and never lived to see how her son would transform that Red Cross symbol.

Camillus’ father was an army captain and at a very young age he followed his father into the army. His biographers tell us that he lived a wild, boisterous life in the army and was a compulsive gambler. He was often destitute, gambling his weapons and uniform. He was wounded in one battle and received a leg wound which never healed. His experiences in a number of so called hospitals were to be very significant for the future direction his life would take.

The hospitals were filthy, squalid places from which patients rarely got out alive. It was witnessing the neglect and ill treatment of the helpless, sick, wounded and dying that brought forth the deeper goodness of Camillus. He got himself out of hospital while he was still able and by good fortune or the design of God found work at the monastery of the Capuchins in Manfredonia, Italy. When he was 25 under the influence of the Capuchins he experienced a spiritual conversion and asked to join the Capuchin order but he was refused on health grounds.

He began to work in St. James’ Hospital in Rome, where he would live and work among his brothers, the sick. Still afflicted by his leg wound, Camillus worked hard to change attitudes and practices. He eventually became the bursar of the hospital but it was difficult to make lasting changes in compassion or cleanliness.

One night he had the inspiration to assemble a group of good men willing to dedicate themselves to the sick. They would call themselves ‘The Servants of the sick.’ Many followed him and in time new attitudes to the care of the sick developed. Camillus worked by day among the sick and studied by night for ordination to the priesthood. At the age 34 he was ordained a priest and along with other ordained members of his Congregation was able to give Communion, hear Confessions and administer the Sacrament of the Sick to the sick and dying.

Italy at this time was afflicted by recurring plague and epidemics and many members of the Congregation died through contact with the sick.

Camillus chose a red cross as the distinguishing badge for the members of his Order to wear upon their black cassocks. He taught his volunteers that the hospital was a house of God, a garden where the voices of the sick were music from heaven. A much revered statement by Camillus is

“The poor and the sick are the heart of God. In serving them, we serve Jesus the Christ.”

Another very significant maxim became became the Order's fourth vow.

“To serve the sick, even with danger to one’s own life”

The "Servants of the Sick" was quickly recognised and affirmed by the church.This total dedication regardless of mortal danger became the heart of the Order’s Constitution and the Formula of Profession. The spirit of their charism is revealed in the maxim ‘Wherever the sick person was, there God was.and it became a place of celebration.' He taught that the bed of the sick became an altar, and the hospital a church.

Once when he was discouraged by many deaths in his Congregation he heard these consoling words from the crucifix, “This is my work, not yours”.

At some point possibly after his death the Congregation became known as the “The Camillian Congregation” After leading the movement throughout Italy, Camillus died on July 14th 1614. In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV proclaimed Camillus de Lellis blessed; in 1746 he canonized him, calling him the “Founder of a new school of charity.”

Through the remainder of the 1800’s and onwards, despite frequent epidemics that decimated the numbers of the “Servants of the Sick” – the Order grew and spread across Europe, and the rest of the world.

It is not difficult to appreciate why Catherine McAuley would enlist St Camillus as one of the Patrons of her new foundation. Could the inspiration of his 4th Vow naming the Charism of his order have influenced Catherine to insist on a 4th Vow naming precisely our own charism, I wonder? 
Sr. Camilla Hunt