Camillus de Lellis was born in Italy in 1527. His father was a soldier and an adventurer. He fought for various imperial powers and he even fought against Rome. As a carrier soldier he also acquired all the vices typical of soldiers of the time. He lived a careless life of a spendthrift and a persistent gambler. When the husband was not at home it was a consolation for the wife. Camillus mother was good hearted, but was timid. The birth of Camillus was more an anxiety to his mother rather than joy. His mother attributed the misfortune of Camillus birth to a dream that she had, that his son will only bring hardship and trouble after his birth.
As the story goes, he was the only child that survived is infancy. The soldier-father gave not help for the upbringing of the son instead gave only bad example. As for Camillus showed interest in becoming a solider. He had a violent temper and an obstinate self-will which even made his mother to fear him. When he was only twelve years old his mother died and further he was pushed into reckless life.
For a time after her death Camillus was placed under the care of relatives, who took little interest in him; his character was not such as to win sympathy, and he was allowed to drift very much as he chose. He was sent to school, but he detested it. When he ought to have been learning he did little but dream of his father’s adventures, and longed for the day when he would be grown-up enough to run away and join him; when he was out of school he found low companions for playmates, and very early became addicted to gambling.
In spite of all the bad habits Camillus acquired all his way, he had deep respect for religion. Perhaps that saved his life. He had faith in prayer and sacraments though he seldom prayed and received the sacraments. When he was only seventeen years he put an end to his education and enlisted himself as a soldier. Before he was nineteen years of age he had learnt all the vices of a wicked youth, including gambling.
In those days fighting and conquering was a way of acquiring wealth. Whenever a general was in need of money they would wage war. Now Camillus and his father would offer their service to any general and at the end of the war they would share the booty. Thus it was that they found themselves in all sorts of camps, sometimes fighting with friends and not only with enemies. Fighting to them was fighting; the cause was no affair of theirs.
Where sin persists, God’s mercy can even abounds. In a moment of desolation, the kindness of a Franciscan Friar induced him to apply for admission to their religious order but was refused given to his reckless background and swelling in his leg. Camillus then travelled to Rome to cure his leg and eventually obtained employment in a hospital that treated people with chronic diseases. But given to his quarrelsome behaviour he could not keep his job for long.
Habits build from childhood cannot be overcome easily. His story of getting a job and being dismissed repeated couple of times but eventually he settled in a hospital and acquired skills of a nurse. His compassion and dedication to the sick soon brought the admiration of many. Now having become pious and prudent manager of the facility, promoted him to be the director of the hospital.
While being the administrator of the hospital he attempted to found an order of lay infirmarians to care for the sick, abandoned and dying. But his intention was not easily welcomed and it was a difficult project. At the advice of his spiritual guide, St. Philip Neri, he decided to become a priest and embarked on to study Latin, philosophy and theology.
Eventually Camillus established his order, the Fathers of a Good Death (1584), and bound the members by vow to devote themselves to the plague-stricken; their work was not restricted to the hospitals, but included the care of the sick in their homes. Pope Sixtus V confirmed the congregation in 1586, and ordained that there should be an election of a general superior every three years Camillus was naturally the first.
Soon another community was established in Naples, and there two of the community won the glory of being the first martyrs of charity of the congregation, by dying in the fleet which had been quarantined off the harbour, and which they had visited to nurse the sick. In 1591 Pope Gregory XIV erected the congregation into a religious order with vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
As the Superior General of the Order he set an outstanding example to his members. Even when we was severely sick he would not allow anyone to wait on him, but he would crawl out of his bed to attend to the sick. He resigned the Generalship of the order, in 1607, in order to have more leisure for the sick and poor. Meantime he had established many houses in various cities of Italy.
He is said to have had the gift of miracles and prophecy. He died at the age of sixty-four while pronouncing a moving appeal to his religious brethren. He was buried near the high altar of the church of St. Mary Magdalen, at Rome He was beatified in 1742, and in 1746 was canonized by Benedict XIV. In 1930, Pope Pius XI named St. Camillus de Lellis, together with St. John of God, Principal Co-Patron of nurses and of nurses’ associations.
The congregation St. Camillus founded offer human and Godly services to the suffering humanity throughout the world, including Uganda. His feast is celebrated on 18th July.
Fr. Lazar Arasu SDB