Saint Camillus of Lellis
Founder of the Servants of the Sick
Saint Camillus was born in the kingdom of Naples in the year 1549. His early years gave no indication of his future sanctity. At the age of nineteen he entered into military service with his father, an Italian noble, against the Turks. After four years of hard campaigning he found himself, through his violent temper, reckless habits, and inveterate passion for gambling, a discharged soldier in bad health, and in such straitened circumstances that he was obliged to beg in the streets. Finally he found work as a laborer for a Capuchin convent which was being built. A few words from a Capuchin Friar brought about his conversion; the following day he cast himself on his knees, seeing himself clearly by a divine illumination. He prayed, Forgive, Lord, this wretched sinner! and give him time to do penance! And he resolved to become a religious.
He served the Capuchin Fathers, working in the garden, sweeping the convent, washing the dishes, until he could be received as an aspirant. Thrice he begin his novitiate with them, but each time an obstinate ulcer on his leg forced him to leave. God had other designs for him. He went to Rome for medical treatment, and there took Saint Philip Neri as his confessor. He entered, as a servant, the hospital of San Giacomo. The carelessness of the paid personnel and nurses towards the suffering patients inspired him with the thought of founding a Congregation of voluntary servants of the sick, to minister to their wants without thought of remuneration. He recalled the Cross of Our Lord, thinking, If they wore it on their breast, the sight of it would sustain them, encourage them, reward them. He spoke of this intention to the most pious ones among his companions, who joined him with enthusiasm. They set up an oratory in a little room where they retired to read and pray. They met great obstacles; their oratory was closed when they were suspected of wanting to control the hospital. But eventually Saint Camillus was ordained priest in 1584 and founded his Congregation with only two co-workers, at the chapel of Our Lady of Miracles. They continued to serve in the large Holy Spirit Hospital, and in 1586 his community, the Servants of the Sick, was confirmed by the Pope.
Its usefulness was soon felt, not only in hospitals, but in private houses. Summoned at every hour of the day and night, the devotion of Camillus never grew cold. With an inexhaustible tenderness he attended to the needs of his patients. He wept with them, consoled them, and prayed with them. During a famine in 1590, the poor were reduced to eating dead animals and often raw herbs; about sixty thousand died during that winter, which was exceptionally cold. Saint Camillus procured bread and clothing and went out to distribute them in Rome to all who needed them. Never did he refuse what was asked, giving away his cloak more than once, and the last sack of flour in the storeroom. But God always provided for the Brothers when they had nothing more to give.
Saint Camillus knew miraculously the state of the souls of his patients; and Saint Philip saw Angels whispering to two Servants of the Sick who were consoling a dying person. One day a sick man said to the Saint, Father, may I beg you to make up my bed? it is very hard. Camillus replied, God forgive you, brother! You beg me? Don’t you know yet that you should command me, for I am your servant and slave! The Saint founded houses of what had become his Order in several cities — Milan, Bologna, Genoa, Florence, Ferrare and others, and sent out his religious when a pestilence afflicted Hungary and surrounding regions. Several of his religious died on that occasion.
In his hospital he was heard to say, Would to God that in the hour of my death one sigh or one blessing of these poor sick creatures might fall upon me! His prayer was answered. He was granted the same consolations in his last hour, which he had so often procured for others. It was in the year 1614, and on the feast of Saint Bonaventure, to whom he had a great devotion, that he died as he had foretold, having the full use of his faculties, as the priest was reciting the words of the ritual, May Jesus Christ appear to thee with a mild and joyful countenance!
Reflection: Saint Camillus venerated the sick as living images of Christ, and by ministering to them in this spirit did penance for the sins of his youth. He led a life precious in merit, and from a violent and quarrelsome soldier became a gentle and tender Saint.
Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 8; Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894)