“[W]e are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us.” — Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, No. 9
Camillus de Lellis was an unlikely candidate for sainthood. A slave to gambling as a young man, he financed his addiction by being a “soldier of fortune.” Yet by the time of his death, Camillus had become well known as a compassionate servant of the sick and dying. He went from being a killer to a healer, and he did so by God’s mercy.
Born on May 25, 1550, in Bocchianico, Italy, Camillus encountered immediately two contrasting models of human beings. His mother, Camilla, was a good, prayerful woman who tried to raise her only child in the Catholic Faith. His father, Giovanni, was an inveterate gambler and mercenary seldom at home. Camillus longed to join his father on the road. He hated going to school, and he ignored his mother’s remonstrations. Instead, he practiced the card games he had learned from Giovanni.
Camilla dreamed around the time of Camillus’ birth that he would travel with a band of men who wore crosses on their shirts.
Given the fact that a cross was seen then as a sign of a condemned man, and seeing that Camillus was becoming more like his father every day, Camilla feared he would end up a tramp or worse. Still, she continued to pray for him and to teach him the ways of faith. She died when Camillus was 13, unaware that her vision actually foresaw a very different legacy for her son.
Road to ruin, recovery
Camillus was sent to live with relatives who had no interest in dealing with such a difficult boy and left him to fend for himself. When he turned 16, having grown to the height of 6 feet, 6 inches, Camillus left and joined his father. Evidently, they were quite a pair. Father and son inhabited a very narrow circle of life. As mercenaries, they would work for any army that would pay. With money in their pockets, they would set out for the gambling dens, playing until broke and then repeating the cycle over and over.
When Camillus was 19, he and his father were travelling to Venice hoping to join the fight against the Turks. They were in bad shape, though. Camillus had suffered a leg wound that suppurated constantly, and Giovanni was at death’s door. He asked Camillus to get a priest. Giovanni received the last rites, expressed sorrow for all his past sins and died having been reconciled to God. This act of faith made an impression on Camillus.
He was sick, too. Would death visit him next? It was time to amend his life. He remembered that he had an uncle, a friar, at a Franciscan monastery. Maybe they would accept him. His uncle was very kind, but he told Camillus that entrance into the order could not happen so quickly. Besides, they had no way of tending to his leg, which had yet to heal. He would have to come back later.
Stumbles and falls
The next couple of years, Camillus made efforts to improve his life, but he kept returning to gambling and fighting. The one thing that removed him from this sad routine was the leg wound, which was not healing. Camillus travelled to the hospital of St. James in Rome. He said he would work in exchange for medical care. The hospital agreed, and Camillus began his work with fervor: sweeping floors, cleaning rooms, etc. While working, he noticed that the doctors favored patients who paid, and the poor were neglected. Even the parish priests ignored the poor. To make matters worse, his fellow servants, many of whom were criminals working off sentences, did as little as possible. Sadly, even Camillus became slack in his duties, and he started gambling again. As soon as it was discovered, he was thrown out.
Another series of ups and downs followed until Camillus had reached bottom. He had hired himself out to the Spanish navy, but a violent storm scattered the fleet, and Camillus’ galley was alone. They were able to reach shore, but the group disbanded since there was no hope of rejoining the fleet. Camillus quickly turned to gambling again and lost everything. All he had in the world was the shirt on his back. Walking aimlessly, he came to Manfredonia and joined a group of ragged beggars asking passersby for bread. One of them, a nobleman, noticed the tall youth among the motley crew and asked Camillus why he was begging. Camillus said nothing, but the nobleman offered him a job. The beggars tried to dissuade Camillus; he would be better off on the road than working for a pittance. Camillus agreed, but as he was walking away, he suddenly turned back and accepted the nobleman’s offer.
Camillus did not realize at first that he had heeded God’s call. It was only years later that Camillus understood that the nobleman’s charity stirred in him a deep memory of being God’s child. Indeed, God had been calling him throughout his life — through his mother’s prayers, through his father’s conversion, even through a job offer. Camillus was like the prodigal son in the pigsty, glimpsing the truth of his dignity as God’s child. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), “the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and ‘restored to value’” (No. 6). Camillus felt restored, and he left gambling forever.
Trials were still ahead of him, but the growing sense of his dignity kept Camillus focused on living well. He went back to St. James’ Hospital and this time did not falter in his duties. He became so conscientious in his service, in fact, that the staff made Camillus superintendent. When the servants failed to join his enthusiasm, Camillus redoubled his efforts. He identified with the sick and dying, especially the poor, remembering that he had been in their situation, too. Like him, they were God’s children, deserving care and respect. Camillus took to heart Jesus’ words, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). He found that he was no longer doing a job, he was loving Jesus in his brothers and sisters.
By 1584, Camillus had been ordained a priest and had established an order of men for the care of the sick (known today as the Camillians). Camillus wanted to reform the way patients were treated. He devoted time to creating better methods of care. For example, he developed and trained his brothers in a way to change bed sheets without having to remove the patient. He began the practice of keeping notes, so caretakers changing shifts would know the patients’ situations. Patients were to be looked upon with love; they were not cases to be managed. In these and many other ways, Camillus anticipated the methods of modern nursing. (Pope Pius XI in 1930 named Camillus a patron of nurses.)
Camillus’ care for the sick was not limited to the hospital. He and the members of his order would search the streets for the sick and dying. They went to battlegrounds, too, becoming the first group of hospital workers to care for the wounded in the trenches. In order to be better recognized by the sick, Camillus asked Pope Sixtus V for permission for his brothers to wear a red cross on their cassocks. The pope gave permission on June 26, 1586. We do not know if Camillus inspired the International Red Cross to use the same emblem, but we do know that it gives his mother’s dream a much more positive meaning than she was able to perceive.
Camillus’ story demonstrates that each of us can be an agent of God’s mercy in another person’s life. Camillus is a perfect model of Pope Francis’ exhortation for the Year of Mercy: “we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us.”
David Werning writes from Virginia.