Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Saint Camillus de Lellis
By John Janaro (’85)
In medieval and early modern Europe, healthcare—especially for those with chronic illnesses—was an improvised and often neglected affair. The Church established and endowed hospitals, but too often these were overcrowded and under-staffed. Doctors tried to heal people, but many—especially among the poor—had great need of ongoing care. They also needed consolation, encouragement, and the experience of God’s love when facing their sufferings.
Hearing the cries of his needy children, the Lord inspired saints and new religious foundations dedicated to that great work of mercy, caring for the sick. One of these saints, who was also a pioneer in the field of healthcare, was the great Camillus de Lellis. By the end of his life in 1614, Camillus was renowned for his holiness, courage, charity, and leadership as the founder of a religious order that bore a red cross on its habit and cared for the sick without self-regard.
But he didn’t start out in life as a saint. Quite the contrary.
Camillus was born in Abruzzo in southern Italy in the year 1550, and he grew up in something of a broken home. His pious mother died when he was only six years old, and his father was a soldier usually far away. With little education or guidance, Camillus grew up to be a giant for his time (eventually reaching 6’6”) with wild aspirations and boldness. At sixteen he followed his father and joined the army. He fought bravely, gained wealth from the spoils of war, and took to dissolute living. His career as a warrior and a playboy, however, were cut short by two factors.
First, Camillus injured his leg in battle. The wound didn’t heal, and developed grave complications that became increasingly disabling and would afflict him for the rest of his life. Second, he developed a different kind of affliction—or what we call today an addiction—that eventually sucked away all his wealth and left him destitute. Young Camillus de Lellis became a compulsive gambler.
The army had no shortage of games of chance. Camillus wagered big and perhaps sometimes won big, but eventually he lost everything. By 1574, he was out of the army, bothered by his leg, and dead broke. In desperate need, he searched for work (even with a limp, he still had great strength), and eventually was hired as a construction laborer by the Capuchin Friary in Manfredonia. When the prior, Father Francesco da Modica, saw the young man, he was moved to give him special attention, and he gently began to mentor him. It was with Father Francesco and among the Capuchins that Camillus experienced something even more profound than the attentive family atmosphere he had missed growing up. Here, Jesus reached out to him and began to change him.
One day, on an errand to another friary, he met a Brother Angelo, who conversed with him about God’s mercy and encouraged him to seek conversion. While returning, Camillus was suddenly so overwhelmed with compunction and enlightenment that he fell from his horse and onto his knees. Back in Manfredonia, Camillus asked Father Francesco to accept him into the order as a penitent. But God had other plans. Eventually Camillus’ leg injury flared up badly, and the Capuchins sent him to an invalid hospital in Rome. It was there, among the sick, that his unique vocation began.