Saint Camillus de Lellis  and The Red Cross

Saint Camillus de Lellis and The Red Cross

Saint Camillus de Lellis and The Red Cross



Did you ever wonder where the Red Cross came from?  Did you ever wonder who came up with the concept of the work to be done by the Red Cross, and the symbol of the Red Cross?  Would you be surprised if we told you that it came to us through a Miracle of the Cross?  Read on, brothers and sisters.

Over 450 years ago, a baby boy was born in a tiny village in the Abruzzi province of Italy.  St. Camillus came into a world of position and wealth, his family being of the nobility.  As his mother was well in her sixties, this was nothing short of miraculous; and so she excitedly awaited Camillus' arrival. But her joy was short-lived when she had a dream of giving birth to a baby boy with a cross on his chest.  Not only that, in her dream, she saw him being followed by other children wearing the same cross.  Highly superstitious, she feared this was a bad omen and some great disaster would befall her family.  Her darkest fears were, he would become a leader of bandits and robbers.  May 25th, 1550, his mother, Camilla went to Mass, as was her custom.  But shortly after arriving in church, she began to experience labor pains.  She was still so upset by her dream, she chose to give birth in a barn, thinking that if her child was born under the same circumstances as Our Lord and Savior, surely this would dispel any misfortune that was to come to pass.  She was basically covering all her bases.  A healthy boy was born and this boy, Camillus was to grow into a towering height of 6 feet 6 inches. 

He grew so quickly, his father sent him to school earlier than usual.  But he was a restless youngster, often wandering away from home and getting into scraps.  People appealed to his father to use discipline on the boy, as he was not only trouble, he led others into mischief.  The father feared that his wife's dream was coming true, and that the boy would be trouble for himself and others.  As befits someone in his position and since he was such a problem in the village, he was sent away to school.  But things were not any better away in school.  More disposed to getting into trouble than studying, scarcely had he learned to write, than he was gambling with cards and dice.

His father came up with the solution, it was time to enlist him in the military.  Seventeen years old, he was about to leave home with his father to fight alongside the Venetians against the Turks, when his father died.  So Camillus set out alone to follow in his father's footsteps and fight the invaders.  As was the passion of soldiers of fortune of his day, he soon was gambling and quarreling.  He finally lost everything: his sword, his powder flask, his cloak, even his shirt.

Now, don't get me wrong.  Camillus was not bad; he was just a product of his time and position.  Although he was victim to his shortcomings, principally his addiction to gambling, there is that strain of the spiritual that he inherited from his mother that crops up from time to time.  God, never giving up on us, placed him on a ship.  One day while serving on the high seas, his vessel was threatened by a violent storm threatening to capsize it.  The ship ominously tossing from side to side, Camillus promised God if he would save him, he would take the habit of St. Francis when he arrived home.  But as is the case with most of us, when he arrived home, danger past, his promises were long forgotten and set-aside.

But God was not finished with him, yet.  No sooner back home, than a serious wound appeared on his leg.  As it was beyond the local doctors, Camillus was sent to a hospital for incurables in Rome.  Although he begins as a patient, no sooner  is his leg healed, he volunteers to work in the hospital caring for the sick.  It would seem that God had placed him here to prepare him for the work the Lord would have for him.  But nine months hardly passed than he was being dismissed because of his quarrelsome disposition and his ever-haunting gambling habit.  More to what he believed to be his nature, he re-enlisted in the fight against the Turks.

Now, during the winter months, the soldiers would be dismissed without pay and had no alternative but to go home or beg.  Reduced to begging, Camillus shamefacedly knocked on the door of the church asking for charity.  Then, he met a rich man who invited him to work for him, serving the Capuchins.  In exchange, he would offer him food and lodging.  Now, who should God put in his path but a Capuchin who invited him to turn his back on sin and in so doing avoid temptation.  Touched by his love and warm words, Camillus begged the Capuchin to pray for him.

The decadence he had reduced himself to overcomes him and the memory of the vow he made to the Capuchin so moves him, Camillus dismounts his horse and gets on his knees, crying out to God, "Wretch that I am, why did I not know my Lord sooner?"  This is the day that changes his life.  Camillus is 25 years old by this time.  He joins the Capuchins, but is soon sent away as his leg has begun to fester once more.

As you see the fiber of his life being woven into place, if you look carefully, you find a very patient God directing his errant little son.  Camillus goes to Rome, to the same hospital as before, for the second time.  Now, with a completely different mind-set, he offers to serve the sick.  And serve he did.  This was a completely converted young man.  He served them with compassion and gentleness.  But after four years, his wounded leg healed, he set out once again to join the Capuchins.  He was admitted, only to be dismissed shortly after, as his leg had begun to fester once again.

Camillus returned to the hospital a third time and served so zealously and faithfully, he was made superintendent of the hospital.  Sadly many of the people employed by the hospital were not of the greatest character; even criminals were engaged.  Camillus was grieving over the decadence and the unscrupulous manner in which the sick were cared for, when one evening, while meditating on the need to serve the ill better, an idea struck him: Form a Congregation of pious men, who would not serve the sick solely for reimbursement but out of love for God, with the tenderness of a mother caring for her ailing child.

Soon five men joined him and Camillus quickly turned a room of the hospital into an oratory, where they would come to pray and do penance.  But sadly this idea was not accepted by the guardians of the hospital; jealousy came into the picture and they did all in their power to block Camillus. 

Jesus speaks to St. Camillus from the Cross

He was at the end of his rope, at the point of almost despairing and giving up, when Jesus came to life on the Cross in his bedroom and spoke to him,

"Why are you afraid?  Do you not realize that this is not your work, but Mine?"

With that Camillus decided he would form a Congregation, but then who would follow a layman?  Therefore, under the spiritual direction of his confessor, St. Philip Neri, Camillus began his walk toward the priesthood.  To bring this about he first entered the School of the Jesuits, beginning at the very bottom.  Considering he was now thirty years old, how very humiliating it had to be studying with the younger men.  But persist he did and on the 26th of May, 1584 he was ordained a priest.  To his delight, he celebrated his first Mass in the same hospital he had been serving in all those years, among his beloved sick.

Camillus founded a new Congregation, The Ministers of the Infirm.  He had a Vision of Our Lady.  She, the Heavenly designer, gave him the design of the habit she wanted him to wear.  It consisted of a long black cassock with a large red cloth cross in the middle.  In obedience to Our Lady, and as a sign of his love for Christ, Camillus asked permission to wear a red cloth cross on his cassock, and it was granted by the Pope.  Everything in place, Camillus and his companions adorned their cassocks with the red crosses and they were on their way, working with the sick.  One day, showing his red cross to the people, Camillus proclaimed, "Look at this cross, which my mother feared was to be the ruin of her house, how God has changed it into the resurrection of many and an exaltation of His glory!"

St. Camillus fights on a different battlefield

His ministry took Camillus and his followers far and wide, setting up communities in all the major cities of Italy, tending the sick wherever the Lord called them.  During the Pontificate of Gregory XIV, a horrible famine broke out, immediately followed by such a widespread plague, 60,000 people died in Rome alone.  Camillus wasted no time in reaching out to the poor, clothing them, feeding them, offering shelter and administering the Last Rites to the dying. 

Camillus traveled by sea caring for those in the hold, and then upon reaching shore buying whatever provisions they needed.

Camillus went back to the battlefield, only now as a soldier of mercy, the red cross on his breast, administering to the sick and dying.  His companions went into the battlefields of Hungary and Croatia in the years 1595 and 1601, and formed the first military ambulance.

 He was so successful organizing assistance to the wounded on the battlefield, that the International Organization for assisting the sick would later adopt the Red Cross as its symbol and name.

Christmas 1595, the Tiber River overflowed inundating the streets and houses, as well as dragging men in its wake.  Camillus and his men had been working all night in the hospital, but when they saw there were men, women and children in the water not able to get out, they waded in and remained there until they were able to help the last one out.  St. Camillus said, "I wish I had a hundred hands so that I could use all of them to help the sick." 

This would be his battle cry and the cry of those who have followed him!  The Cross, the Red Cross like the Cross of Jesus which was meant to cause death and destruction, instead brought about victory and freedom, one from sin and the other from pain.

St. Camillus and the Angels

There are many recorded accounts of the Angels taking part in the Ministry of St. Camillus and his Ministers of the Infirm.  One of them was witnessed by St. Philip Neri, and not by St. Camillus.  The two Saints were praying over a man in Rome who was on the verge of death.  St. Camillus was praying for a triumphant death for one of their benefactors, Signor Virgilio Crescenzi.  St. Philip saw Angels surround St. Camillus as he prayed.  They whispered in his ears and gave him the words to pray for the man's soul.

In another instance, a woman, who was in the throes of death, wanted St. Camillus to be by her side to help her through the passage from this life into the next.  He wanted to be there also, or at least have one of his Camillians there to minister to her, but neither option was possible.  So the Lord sent two Angels, dressed in the habit of the Camillians, to stay with the woman for three days until she died and bring her over the threshold into Paradise.  This was witnessed by the parents of the woman, although they didn't know she was being ministered over by Angels.  The parents went to the Church to thank the two Ministers of the Infirm who had stayed with their daughter for three days.  When they looked through the book which held the names of all those who had been assisted, and the Ministers who had assisted them, they could find neither the name of their daughter who had died, nor any record of Ministers having stayed with her.  It had been truly a gift from God.

St. Camillus de Lellis lives on

The Lord took St. Camillus into His bosom on the 14th of July 1614.  As soon as he died, Camillus was invoked as the Saint of the poor and the sick.  The Church officially canonized him in 1746, and with St. John of God, he was declared by Pope Leo XIII Patron of the Sick, and then later Patron of nurses and nursing associations by Pope Pius XI.

St. Camillus is by no means dead!  What we have given you here is but a thumbnail sketch of the life of this most powerful Saint in the Church.  There are many miracles and Heavenly Visions given to St. Camillus, and yet his work would seem to many to have been basically social work, taking care of the sick.  But as you can see from this short story of his life, and will see more if you delve into his life in more detail, none of what he did could have been accomplished without the grace of God, and none of it would have had any meaning if it had not been for the love of and glory of God. 

His message is not dead, as long as love and charity is still alive.  It lights up the darkness of our times, these times of death and destruction, man against man.  As long as one man offers care or compassion to another, as long as one person cares for his brother or sister, St. Camillus is not dead.  Wherever we see that Red Cross, the universal sign of hope that help is on its way, we will always remember St. Camillus de Lellis and his band of missionaries.  We have said on other occasions: Whenever there is need in our Church and in our world, God sends us Saints and other powerful men and women in the Church.  St. Camillus de Lellis is one of those men.  Thank You Jesus, for St. Camillus.

About the Authors:

Bob and Penny Lord are renowned Catholic authors of many best selling books about the Catholic Faith. They are hosts on EWTN Global Television and have written over 25 books. They are best known as the authors of “Miracles of the Eucharist books.” They have been dubbed, “Experts on the Saints.” 


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