A Big Man With A Big Heart

Saint Camillus de Lellis

Feast Day: 14th July

A wounded soldier with a quarrelsome nature and a taste for gambling might seem to be an unlikely candidate for sainthood but God called him to serve the poor and the sick.

Born in Italy in 1550, Camillus grew to be over six feet tall. When he was 17 years old he joined the Venetian army, along with his father, and went to fight the Turks. It was during his military service that he contracted a disease in his leg, which remained with him for the rest of his life. Admitted aged 21 to the San Giacomo hospital in Rome as both patient and servant, he was dismissed after nine months because of his quarrelsome behaviour.

Then in 1574 he lost everything he owned, having gambled away his savings, his armour and weapons, and literally the shirt off his back. He was glad to accept work as a labourer with the Capuchins who were building a new friary. One day the Guardian had a long talk with Camillus, making him see the foolishness of his way of life. He applied to join the Capuchin Order but could not be admitted to final vows because of his diseased leg.

Returning to the hospital of San Giacomo, Camillus devoted himself to serving the sick. The administrators were so impressed by the change in his attitude, and by his nursing ability, that they eventually appointed him superintendent of the hospital. He was grieved to see that many of the paid staff carried out their work carelessly, with little interest in the welfare of the patients. He decided to form an association of nurses who would be prepared to look after the sick as a work of charity. There was no shortage of volunteers. Camillus also wanted to give spiritual help to the patients by serving them as a priest. He was ordained in Rome by the exiled Bishop of St. Asaph.

On his ordination a wealthy Roman gentleman gave him an annuity. He left San Giacomo and with two companions established his Congregation of Ministers to the Sick, caring for plague victims, prisoners and the dying. Some of the ministers accompanied troops fighting in Hungary and Croatia, where they set up military field hospitals.

In 1588 Camillus and 12 companions founded a new house in Naples. Here, there were plague ships which were forbidden to enter, so the Ministers of the Sick went on board and nursed the sufferers. In the course of this charitable work two caught the disease and died.

Pope Gregory XIV gave the Congregation the status of a religious Order, with special responsibility for the care of the sick. No-one knew more about the needs of sick people than Camillus who suffered throughout his life from a number of ailments. By the time he died in 1614, aged 64, Camillus had established 15 religious houses and eight hospitals. He rightly shares with St. John of God the title Patron of the sick and of nursing associations.

Given his early failures Camillus could have been a drop out and sunk into despair. Instead, in his weakness, he allowed God to give him strength, and a purpose in life. His own physical suffering made him look outwards to others and nurse them with love and compassion. Whenever we are called upon to attend our sick relatives we can turn to Camillus and ask him to help us to be the patient and loving nurse that he was.