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If ever there were proof that a sinner could one day become a saint, today’s saint is your man.
In 1550, Camilla Compelli de Laureto found herself pregnant at an advanced age and with a terrible dream. In the dream, the son she was carrying was wearing a cross on his chest and he was leading other men who bore the same emblem.
Now, in those days, men who wore crosses on their chests were condemned to the gallows. As far as Camilla was concerned, the vision could not be worse. She carried this anxiety with her to her death when her son was 13 years old.
The son, Camillus, grew to be 6 feet 6 inches, every inch of him a terror. He was known as a troublemaker in his town and he eventually joined his father to be a mercenary soldier in the many wars on the Italian peninsula.
He fought sometimes with, sometimes against the French and against the invading Turks as well. His paychecks never lasted long as he was a confirmed gambler and once even lost the shirt off his back.
After one of his military skirmishes, Camillus was wounded above his ankle. He had to limp back home, accompanied by his father, but along the way his dad became ill. They both received medical attention (such as it was), but the father died, and Camillus never completely healed.
Now fending for himself, the young ex-mercenary took up with another gambler and carouser. They fell upon such hard times that the duo took to going to churches to ask for food. A man working at one of the churches could not understand how a guy as big as Camillus was not able to provide for himself.
The young man explained his unit had been disbanded and he was down on his luck. The man then offered him a good meal at his own home and to help find the lad some employment. Camillus’ friend scoffed at the notion that the holy terror would give up the “free” life for a job.
Evidently, young Camillus had enough of “that” life and took a job helping around a Capuchin monastery. During one of his errands for the monks, thanks to a conversation with one of the brothers, the 25-year-old Camillus decided to ask to become a Capuchin Franciscan, but he was rejected for his lack of education.
He made his way to Rome and found himself in the St. James Hospital because of that wound that just would not heal. He paid for his treatment by helping the other sick and dying patients. On his free time, however, he continued gambling and fighting earning himself a speedy discharge from the hospital.
Camillus strengthened his resolve to straighten out his life and began studies with the Jesuits. He was far older than the other students in his classes and had to put up with teasing and derision from the other students. Unfortunately, his wound once again reopened and with the help of some of his religious friends was allowed to reenter the hospital. He was given the responsibility of directing a small staff to help in patient treatment. He saw better ways of treating the sick and infirm and began to be enthusiastic about his mission. Camillus realized that this too was a religious calling.
At age 34, Camillus became a priest. He organized a group of religious and lay people that dedicated themselves to the care of the sick and dying just for the glory of God and not for remuneration.
In 1586 Camillus and his group received permission from the pope to wear a red cross on their black cassocks and capes to distinguish themselves from others. Camillus’ mother’s premonition had come true but with an entirely different outcome from that which she feared. For Camillus the red cross stood for the source of his order’s inspiration and a warning to the devil as he diverted his war-like tendencies toward battling for God.
In 1591 Pope Gregory bestowed the title of “Order of the Ministers of the Infirm” to the group at Camillus’ request. The founder said that his members should have Christ as their model when he said, “I have not come to be served, but to serve and give life.”
Camillus died on July 14, 1614, was declared blessed in 1742 and canonized in 1745. Leo XIII, in the year 1886, proclaimed St. Camillus patron of all hospitals and the sick, with St. John of God. Pius XI, in 1930, declared him to be the Model and Protector of all who nurse the sick.
Today, the Camillians are found all over the world and known “before anything … to the practice of works of mercy for the sick” and ensure that ‘man is placed at the center of care in the world of health.”