Feast Day: July 14th | Patron for the Sick, Hospitals, Nurses and Doctors, and those with gambling and other addictions | Often pictured as a priest with a wound on his leg tending an ill person.
In 1575, Camillus, a strapping 25 year old young man, was working at the Capuchin friary in Manfredonia Italy (just north of the “heel” of the boot, on the East coast). He had served in various armies around Italy with his father ever since he was a young man, and had just left Rome’s San Giacomo hospital for treatment of wounds endured in that service. But he wasn’t disciplined, nor a disciple. Camillus had a stubborn and rebellious streak ever since he was a little boy, saddening his mother who passed away when he was still little, and – always being taller than his peers – had ran off to the army at the age of 13, embracing all the worst vices he could find, cussing and gambling and carousing. His father also died during those critical years of his young-adulthood and Camillus continued down the deadly game of risking his life, gambling away his possessions, and selling his soul to wherever pleasure was to be found.
Even nearly losing his life in shipwreck in 1574 did not dislodge him from this way of life, and so it was that he found himself, destitute and injured, working on the grounds of that capuchin friary. One of the friars had the perception to see in this man a spark of grace that even Camillus’s mother and father were unable to foster. As they made their way up the rugged road to San Giovanni Rotundo (to another friary, where, in a few more centuries, Padre Pio would live), that friar chatted with Camillus and at some point called him out for his sins. “God is everything. The rest is nothing. One should save one’s soul which does not die.” As the rocks of the Gargano mountains scraped the sky above, the reality of God finally pierced Camillus’s heart. He slid from his saddle, threw himself on the ground, and all those unprayed prayers finally broke free: “Lord, I have sinned. Forgive this great sinner! How unhappy I have been for so many years not to have known you and not to have loved you. Lord, give me time to weep for a long time for my sins.”
His prayer was answered. He attempted to join the Capuchins, but his past decisions haunted him. A wound on his leg received while a soldier of fortune would not heal, and with such a condition, he could not be admitted to vows. We can ask why they didn’t allow this converted, convicted, transformed soul into their community? He felt called to become a friar, why would a leg wound exclude him?! How unfair, how unaccepting, how cruel. The unfortunate fact is that each of us can make decisions that impact our future, change our path, limit our options, but they never stymie God! Camillus could not become a friar, but that closed door was an invitation to deeper surrender. He went back to Rome, returned to the hospital where before he had been kicked out for quarreling with other patients and staff, and began to aid those in the most dire straits. This was a hospital for the incurables, for those with no means, and no hope of recovery, and while the ulcer on Camillus’s leg continued to pain him, he worked to love those others in pain. He found a spiritual director, an awesome priest, Philip Neri, and formed a group of men dedicated to give wholehearted care to the abandoned and neglected patients at this hospital. Eventually, Camillus would be ordained a priest, and the group would become a legitimate religious order. Their symbol was a red cross upon their priestly cassock; their charism was to pour themselves into the care of those who were sick and dying. They would board ships carrying the bubonic plague; they would stand guard over the recently deceased to be assured that they had indeed passed into eternity; they would care for the wounded in the middle of battles, on one occasion, their medical tent and everything in it was obliterated in the midst of things except that red cross. Camillus remained injured his entire life and was known to crawl to the sick when his leg would not support him. He died, still leading the order, and still caring for the sick, in 1614.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin was intrigued to find that 250 years after the Camillians had chosen the red cross to be the symbol of medical care in the middle of disasters, the Geneva convention would choose it for the same purpose. There is no direct connection between their choices, but it is a beautiful thing that one of the most iconic symbols in the world is the Christian cross, once a symbol of death, now a symbol of love, care, sacrifice, and healing.