Serving Christ in the Poor

Illnesses, from the common cold to terminal diseases, strike at the core of our fallen nature. Despite the physical pain and spiritual agony, sometimes the sick, with the help of God’s grace, can see beyond the vanity of the world. Because of their humbled position, they can recognize the need for prayer and penance for furthering the glory of God and saving souls more so than their healthier counterparts.

St. Camillus de Lellis was blessed to live with a sick patient’s perspective, keenly aware that death could strike any person at any moment. In his care for the sick, he took these words to heart: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2). He turned the hearts of the sick to Christ and away from worldly concerns. He became “all things to all men, that [he] might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). By becoming another Christ, he truly understood the plight of the sickly and suffering man.

Born in Italy in 1550, Camillus only knew his mother briefly, for she died when he was about thirteen years old. Subsequently raised by his father, a soldier in the Neapolitan and French armies, the young Camillus became a soldier himself, and began gambling, which exacerbated his belligerent attitude. In 1575, with his father dead and his regiment disbanded, he gambled away his entire inheritance and all his material possessions, even his boots. Feeling the remorse of the prodigal son, he began to help the Capuchins build a new friary in Manfredonia, Italy. A friar there recognized embers of virtue in Camillus and tried to bring him to Christ. That same year, Camillus came back to the faith, entering the novitiate of the friars he had helped.

However, a persisting leg wound required two lengthy hospitalizations, resulting in his expulsion from the Capuchins. He then went to the hospital of San Giacomo degli Incurabili, trying to make ends meet by caring for the patients there, eventually becoming superintendent of the hospital. Sensing that the Lord was calling him to dedicate his life to helping the sick, and wanting to start a group of pious men to provide better service to them than they were receiving, he sought the counsel of St. Philip Neri. According to the advice of St. Philip, he pursued Holy Orders, and, soon after, founded the Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers of the Infirm (M.I.), adopting a black habit with a large red cross – a sign that later inspired the logo of the Red Cross health organization. 

The Red Cross symbolized the Most Precious Blood of Jesus Christ. As much as Camillus ministered to the physical needs of the sick he cared for, he always did so in light of eternity. No number of medical techniques or supplies can save a soul. His conviction that only the Precious Blood of Christ saves spurred Camillus to ceaselessly seek the salvation of souls. He embodied what our Lord said to His disciples: “truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). He understood that “almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). 

Camillus became like the one who gave wine from the hyssop branch to our Lord on the Cross to drink. As much as Christ thirsted for something to quench his physical thirst on the Cross, he longed immeasurably more to quench his spiritual thirst by accomplishing our salvation. Camillus satisfied both of these desires of Christ in his care for the sick’s souls and bodies. By extending the branch of hyssop with the wine-soaked sponge to the lips of these other Christs, he applied the merits of the Most Precious Blood to souls by conforming himself totally to God’s will, not allowing anything to get in the way of his care for the sick. Camillus was a priest, so he administered in the hospital the sacrifice he performed at the altar. By doing so, he lived a life of total self-sacrifice.

But Camillus also took great care of his own spiritual health, for he wanted to imitate Christ to the best of his abilities. Fr. Stefano Manelli, in his book Jesus: Our Eucharistic Love, notes that Fr. Camillus would not go a single day without confessing his sins, so that his soul could be as pleasing as possible to our Lord when he received Him in Holy Communion the next morning. One evening, when talking to a fellow priest in a public square, realizing that he would not be able to access another priest to hear his confession before Holy Mass the following morning, he knelt down and made his confession. He wanted to “dust off” his soul for Christ. In addition to the example of his care for the sick, Camillus provides us an additional example of making frequent and fervent confessions so we can constantly humble ourselves by acknowledging our sinfulness and our dependence upon God alone. 

If St. Camillus, who gambled away his entire material fortune, became a great saint, so can we. For in him we have a shining example of how to love God and our neighbors through humility, self-sacrifice, and charity. 

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Edward Kerwin is a rising senior at a Catholic high school in New York City.

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