St. Camillus: Catholic Pioneer in Health Care

On July 18 we celebrate the feast of a saint whose life is significant not only to the history of religion but to the history of medical practice as well — prompting him to be called the “Red Cross saint.” St. Camillus de Lellis (born in Abruzzi, Italy in 1550) started out as a feisty and quarrelsome youth, much addicted to gambling.  Standing at 6 feet 6 inches tall, he was well suited to service in the Venetian military fighting the Turks.  In battle he contracted a painful disease of the leg which would afflict him for the rest of his life.  Camillus recovered at the San Giacomo hospital for incurables in Rome, as both a patient and a servant, but was discharged for disorderly behavior and returned to the battlefield.

Camillus’ leg affliction, and his time spent at the hospital, turned out to be a source of spiritual good.  After another gambling binge reduced him to penury, Camillus experienced a religious conversion.  He returned to the San Giacomo hospital, this time devoting himself to the care of the sick.  After some time he became superintendent of the hospital and was eventually ordained a priest.  In 1585 he established the Ministers of the Sick, a congregation of male nurses devoted to caring for the ill and plague-ridden in the hospitals, on the battlefield, in galleys and prisons.  In 1591 Pope Gregory XIV elevated the congregation to the status of a religious order, and in 1607 Camillus laid down the rule for the order.  A red cross was adopted as the order’s symbol, emblazoned on all the habits.  It is still universally recognizable as a symbol of medical care.

Indeed, the International Red Cross, which helps and provides medical aid in disasters and emergencies, can be traced to the work of St. Camillus.  In 1595 and 1601, some of his band of nurse/religious went on the battlefield in Hungary and Croatia to tend to wounded soldiers, the first example of a “military ambulance unit.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that all medical units in all wars owe their existence to St. Camillus and his ministers of mercy.

The idea that bacteria caused disease was gradually dawning upon educated minds in St. Camillus’ day, but most medical facilities were mired in squalid conditions; the help in such institutions was frequently culled from anybody that could be found, including criminals.  Camillus saw these substandard conditions firsthand and strove to ameliorate them.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, he was a pioneer in insisting upon fresh air, suitable diets, and isolating infectious patients — medical practices we take for granted today.

He was also insistent upon the personal touch in medical care, always seeing in his patients the suffering Christ.  As a man with persistent health problems himself, Camillus was a co-sufferer with his patients; yet even when undergoing great pain to the extent of not being able to stand, he literally crawled from bed to bed in the infirmary to check on each of the patients.  He cared for the sick up to their last moments, ensuring they experienced a happy and blessed death.

One wonders, what would St. Camillus make of the vast impersonal “health care industry” of today?

Camillus died in 1614 aged 64 of a compound of illnesses.  He was canonized in 1746 and is the patron of nurses and the sick.  His order, known variously as the Ministers of the Sick or Camillians, exists on every continent.

St. Camillus de Lellis belonged to the great age of the Counter (or Catholic) Reformation, which saw so much religious zeal, so many religious orders founded and so many saints made.  His life crisscrossed with that of another great saint of the age, Philip Neri, who was his confessor and spiritual advisor for a time.  He reminds us of a time when medicine and science were connected with religious and spiritual ideals, and their growth happened under the auspices of the Church.

Above all, St. Camillus’ life illustrates the adage that saints are often sinners who see the light, and that God can bring good out of every evil.  On St. Camillus de Lellis’ feast day, let’s thank God for those persons who for centuries have brought the light of Christ to those who suffer in the body.

Here is a prayer to St. Camillus:

O God, Who did endow St. Camillus with a special grace of charity for the relief of souls in their last agony, we beseech Thee, by his merits, to pour into our hearts the spirit of Thy love; that in the hour of our death we may overcome the enemy and deserve to win a heavenly crown.  Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who lives and reigns with Thee, One God, forever and ever.  Amen.

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