St. Camillus de Lellis: the Ex-Trooper
ST. CAMILLUS DE LELLIS: THE EX-TROOPER1550-1614
Camillus de Lellis had a good but timid mother; his father seems to have been the very opposite. Both were of respectable, some say of noble, families; and the surname confirms it. But the father, himself the son of a fighting man, had become such a ne'er-do-well that he had long since dragged the family name in the mud. He was a soldier all his life, or rather he was an adventurer; he served in the armies of various monarchs, hiring himself out to whoever would pay him in the manner common at that time, and was actually in the imperial army which sacked Rome in 1527. He appears to have been chiefly conspicuous for having all a soldier's vices of the period; he was a careless spendthrift and a persistent gambler. The chief consolation he gave to his wife was that he was seldom at home.
When Camillus came into the world, he brought only anxiety to his mother. He was the only child that survived his infancy; even before his birth she had a dream which she could only interpret as portending misfortune. Her husband gave her no help, and she had the burden of bringing up her boy as best she could, with a sorry example before him. As for Camillus, from the first he showed only signs of taking after his father. As a child he was lank and ungainly, unusually tall for his years, in appearance anything but attractive, lazy by nature and hating to be taught.
He had a violent temper and an obstinate self-will, which were not improved by the fact that his mother feared him, and for peace's sake allowed him his own way so far as she was able. He was only twelve years of age when she died; what with her reckless husband, and what with her wayward son, who had learnt thus early to pay no heed to her, life was too much for her, and she was taken away.
For a time after her death Camillus was placed under the care of relatives, who took little interest in him; his character was not such as to win sympathy, and he was allowed to drift very much as he chose. He was sent to school, but he detested it. When he ought to have been learning he did little but dream of his father's adventures, and longed for the day when he would be grown-up enough to run away and join him; when he was out of school he found low companions for playmates, and very early became addicted to gambling. One only thing could be said for him. In spite of his waywardness he learnt from his mother a deep respect for religion. He believed in prayer, though he seldom prayed; in the sacraments, though he seldom received them; in later years we shall see how this pulled him through many a crisis, and in the end was his saving.
At length the day of liberation came. Being so tall, and having early learnt to swagger as a full-grown man, he could easily pass as being much older than he was; when he was barely seventeen he shut up his books, joined his father in a foreign camp, and enlisted as a soldier. There he allowed himself to live as he would; before he was nineteen he had learnt everything a wicked youth could learn, and made free use of his knowledge. Under his father's tuition, in particular, he became an expert gambler; from that time onward the two together, father and son, were the center of gambling wherever they went. In fact they made gambling a profession.
There was plenty of fighting in those days, and soldiers of fortune had little difficulty in finding occupation; when their funds had run out, and idling had become a burden, Camillus and his father had only to offer their services to any general who was in need of men, and because of their previous experience they were easily accepted. Thus it was that they found themselves in all sorts of camps, sometimes fighting with friends, sometimes with enemies; an authority seems to say that at one time they were found even on the side of the Turks.
Fighting to them was fighting, the cause was no affair of theirs.
So long as they were paid their hire, and enjoyed the wild life they desired, the rest mattered little to them.
But this kind of existence could not go on for ever. Even among the rough soldiers of their time Camillus and his father were too great a disturbance in the camp, and once at least were turned out. Their gambling, aggravated by their own violent tempers, led to quarrels; gambling and quarreling produced only insubordination. They took to the road, wandering from hamlet to hamlet, earning what they could by their cards. One day, as they were traveling together on foot with a view to joining the army in Venice which was being raised to fight the Turks, both of them fell ill on the road. But the father was the worse of the two; and Camillus had perforce to put up with his own sickness as best he could while he found a place where his father could be cared for. Alas! it was too late. His father's illness was too far advanced, his worn-out body had no resistance left. Camillus's only consolation wasfor in spite of the life he was leading it was to him a strange and abiding consolationthat on his death- bed the old man broke down in sorrow for his past, received the last sacraments with true fervor, and died an evidently penitent man. Thus for the first time the faith he had inherited from his mother served Camillus in good stead.
Left alone in the world, and with this last scene stamped indelibly upon his memory, Camillus began to reflect. He was reduced by his gambling habit to utter destitution of both body and soul; death might overtake him at any time, as it had overtaken his father, and there might be no one to help him in his need. He would mend his ways; he would escape from all further temptation by hiding himself in a monastery, if a monastery could be induced to accept him; there and then he took a vow to become a Franciscan. He remembered that he had a Franciscan uncle somewhere in Aquila; he would begin with him. As soon as he was well enough he tramped off, came to his uncle's door, told him his tale, and asked that he might be admitted into the Order. His uncle received him kindly and listened to his story, but was not easily convinced. Vocations did not come so easily as that; Camillus would need further trial that his constancy might be proved. Besides, at the moment he was in no fit state to enter on religious life. Not only was he worn in body, but he had a running wound above his ankle, which had started long ago with a mere nothing, but had obstinately refused to be healed. The Franciscans were kind, but they could not think of receiving Camillus as a postulant, and he was once more sent adrift.
And he did drift; first to old boon companions, with whom he took up again his gambling habits; then, since the running sore in his leg became a nuisance to others, he began to wander alone from place to place, scarcely knowing how he lived. It was indeed a long and trying probation for one who was to become the apostle of the derelict and dying. At length he found his way to Rome; and here the thought occurred to him that if he could gain admission to some hospital the wound in his leg might be tended and cured. He applied at the hospital of S. Giacomo; as he had no money with which to pay for a bed, he offered himself as a servant in the place, asking in return that his running sore might be treated. It is well to remember that at this time, since the Franciscans had rejected him, his chief ambition was to be cured that he might once more return to the life of a soldier.
On the conditions he proposed he was received and given a trial.
At first all seemed to go well. Camillus was in earnest, and meant to do his best; away from his old surroundings the better side of Camillus appeared. He went about his work with a will, sweeping corridors, cleaning bandages, performing all the most menial duties of the place, for he was fit for nothing else. The doctors on their part did theirs, attending to his wound, and giving him hope of a permanent cure; under this regime one might have trusted that a change had come in his life at last. But unfortunately for him, in spite of the work allotted to him, he had many idle hours on his hands; and there were never wanting other idle servants about him with whom he was able to spend them. In spite of all his good intentions his old passion for gambling returned and he could not resist. He secured a pack of cards, and to wile away the time he taught his games to his companions. But soon the authorities began to notice that something was going wrong in the servants' quarters. The men were less ready at their work; they were dissatisfied among themselves; quarreling became more common, for with the return of the gambling habit Camillus's ill-temper returned in its wake. A search was made of his room; the telltale cards were found hidden in Camillus's bed. Without more ado he was pushed into the street, his leg still unhealed, and without a coin in his pocket.
So for a second time Camillus's efforts to mend his ways came to nothing. He became despondent; his evil habits had the better of him and he seemed unable to control them; he would go back to soldiering again and take his chance. Hence the next we hear of him is once more in the armies of Venice; he fought in those ranks against the Turks, while he was still only nineteen years of age. He continued there for two years, fighting by land and sea.
Still even here his evil genius pursued him. He distinguished himself, it is said, on the battle-field, but in camp once more got himself into trouble. On one occasion, at Zara, a gambling quarrel led to a challenge; a duel was arranged between himself and another soldier, and only the interference of the sergeant of his company prevented it. In the end, good enough soldier as he was, his seniors seem to have grown tired of him and he was dismissed.
But dismissal did not cool Camillus's fighting spirit. Since Venice would not have him any longer, he went and joined the army of Spain. Later on, in 1574, he is found in a company of adventurers, under one Fabio; its chief attraction for Camillus was that every man in it was addicted to gambling. In this company he fought in North Africa and elsewhere; at last, on their way to Naples from Palermo, their galleys were so tossed about by a storm that they were given up for lost, and they finally landed with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their weapons of war. The company had to be disbanded, and once again Camillus was a homeless tramp. He went straight to the gambling dens which he knew well. There he staked all he hadhis sword, his gun, his powder flasks, his soldier's coat, and he lost them all; he was thankful that at least he had his shirt on his back, for even that, on a former occasion in that same place, he had staked and lost, and had been forced to part with in public.
He now sank lower than ever; what was worse, he found a companion in his misery. The two formed a sort of partnership.
Gambling from town to town became their trade, with begging to make up when they had lost everything. Worst of all, Camillus in a kind of hopeless despair seemed to have no will left; he went wherever and did whatever his evil comrade directed him to go and to do. They had a vague idea that they would travel about and see the world; if fighting came their way, they would join up again as they had done before, this was Camillus's condition in 1574, when he was twenty-four years of age. Just then, if one had searched all the dens of Italy, it might have been difficult to find a more hopeless case than that of Camillus de Lellis.
And yet just then the change came. The two tramps had come to Manfredonia. One morning they were begging, with others of their kind, standing on the steps outside a church. It chanced that among the passersby was a man of wealth, well known for his charitable works. He noticed the tall, soldier-like youth among the beggars. He spoke to him, expressed his surprise that one such as he should be begging his bread among cripples and other helpless creatures, and told him that he ought to work. Camillus made the usual excuses; he said that he was a disbanded soldier and that now no one would employ him. The rich man took him at his word. At the time he was building a monastery outside the town; he gave Camillus no money, but sent him with a note of instruction that he should be given employment on the building.
Camillus accepted the offer, and made up his mind to try, but first he must take leave of his old companion and dissolve their partnership. His comrade, when he heard his announcement, could not but burst into laughter at this sudden conversion. He mocked at Camillus, so quickly turned pious; he showed him the liberty he was throwing away. He sneered at the idea that Camillus would ever persevere, he warned him that the old craving would come back again and he would give way. He would gamble with the other workmen, many of whom would not need to be taught, he would quarrel as he had done before; he would again be dismissed, and would be left more destitute than ever.
Besides, the work offered him was only a trap. Under such management he would be watched everywhere; he would be always under restraint; he might as well go to prison. How much better would it be for them both to get out of Manfredonia and look for work elsewhere! Then they could do as much or as little as they liked, and when they were tired of it could go out once more on the road.
At first Camillus listened to his tempter and yielded. It was true he could not trust himself; it was also true that he could not easily surrender the free life he had been living. He turned aside, and went down the street with his companion, following him blindly as he had done before. They left Manfredonia and made for the next town, more than twelve miles away. But on the road there came to Camillus a great grace. He had felt the goodwill of the man who had offered him work; thought of the Franciscan monastery brought back to him memories of his early efforts to amend, five or six years before; it seemed to him that here was an opportunity which should not be missed, and which might never occur again. With a mighty effort, the greatest he ever made in all his life, he shook himself free. To the surprise of his companion he suddenly turned round, and began to run back to Manfredonia as fast as his legs would carry him. Next morning he found himself enrolled among the laborers on the monastery building.
Still it was no easy task. As might have been expected from one with a past like that of Camillus, he found hard work anything but a trifle. He hated the drudgery; moreover there came upon him the consciousness that he was born for something better.
There followed dreams of the life he had lived. With all its squalor and misery at least it had been free; however low he had sunk he had not starved; and there had come occasions when he had had a good time. Then his old companion discovered his whereabouts, and would come around the place. He would taunt Camillus with his slave's life, would contrast his own freedom as he went to and fro at his pleasure, would provoke in him the temptation to gamble which Camillus could scarcely resist. And last there was the wound in his leg. The more he labored the worse it troubled him; the particular task that was assigned to him only tended to aggravate the pain.
Nevertheless Camillus labored on. The skilled work of the builder was beyond him, but there were other employments to keep him always occupied. He drove the donkeys that carried the stones for the building in panniers on their backs; he took the messages into the town; he brought the other laborers their food and drink. Curious neighbors could not but observe this tall youth in rags with that about him which showed that he had seen better days, but he took no heed. The only remaining sign of his former life was the soldier's belt he still wore; the children in the street were quick to notice this and made fun of the trooper turned donkey-driver. Camillus was stung by these trifles; he could endure many things, but could not endure to be ridiculed. Still he held on; whatever happened he must keep to his post; that was almost all his ambition for the present, and his many past failures had taught him where he must be on his guard if he would succeed. If he would check his gambling propensity he must keep to himself and away from danger; if he would conquer his habit of idle dreaming he must be always occupied; if he would subdue his temper he must submit to whatever was put upon him; if he would suppress the multitudinous temptations that surged within him, he must make himself work and work. He could look back afterwards and recognize that those months spent as a driver of donkeys were the turning point of his life.
It was a humble beginning, solitary, drab, without sensation of any kind; it had not even the dramatic climax of a sudden great conversion like that of Augustine and others. Nevertheless it was the beginning of a saint. Camillus worked on, and soon two things followed. He began to have more confidence in himself, and he began to win the good opinion of others; with the first came an aspiration to rise to better things, with the latter the means to attain them. We are explicitly told that when first he undertook the work at the building his only ambition was to get through the winter, and to earn a few crowns with which to start life again in the spring; after all, even that was something when we consider what he had been immediately before. But he had no intention, and even feared, to go further. When some Capuchins, for whom the monastery was being built, offered him some of their cloth to replace his rags he refused it; he was afraid lest to accept it might lead to other things, perhaps to his becoming a friar. But before the winter was over all this had changed. One day, as he was driving his donkeys back from the town, he received the reward of his perseverance. He seemed to see himself, and all the life he had hitherto lived, in an entirely new light. The memory of the vow he had made long ago came back to him, and he began to ask himself whether his present occupation was not an opportunity given to him to fulfill it. The thought sank deeper; he remembered how once he had hoped that this might be an escape from his miserable life.
He spoke of it to one of the friars, and he was encouraged. Encouragement revived desire, and soon he was at the superior's feet, asking that he might be received.
In this way Camillus gained admission into a Franciscan monastery. But his stay did not last long. No sooner had he begun his novitiate than the wound above his ankle began to grow worse. He was told that he must go; with this impediment upon him he could not be received, but for his consolation he was given the assurance that so soon as ever his running sore was healed he would be taken back. Armed with this promise Camillus set to work in earnest; he would begin again where he had begun before and failed, but he would not fail again. He would go to Rome, to the hospital of S. Giacomo, where he had received so much benefit before both for body and for soul but from which he had been so ignominiously, and so deservedly, expelled. He would ask to be given another chance, to be taken in on the same terms as formerly. For almost a year he had kept away from gambling; he had learnt to work as he had never worked in all his life; the Franciscan fathers would give him a good character; he himself would let the authorities see that they might trust him; perhaps they would let him try again.
Camillus came to Rome, and all seemed to go well; it was in 1575, a holy year. He was given another trial at S. Giacomo, and this time there were no complaints. Camillus had heard of St. Philip Neri, of his wonderful power in supporting sinners; he made himself known to him, and St. Philip took him in charge.
Under his wise guidance Camillus kept steady; he worked at the hospital for four years as a menial servant, after which it appeared that the wound in his leg was healed. Then once more he wished to return to the Capuchins. St. Philip tried to dissuade him, but he would not listen. He had made a vow; the Capuchins had promised that when his leg was healed they would have him back and he would go. But scarcely had he entered than the trouble began again; the wound broke out afresh and he was told to depart, this time with the emphatic injunction that he must not hope to try any more. Thus for the third occasion Camillus's ambition to become a friar was frustrated. He tried again the next year, with the Observantines of Ara Coeli, and was again refused; only then did he give up all hope altogether.
"God bless you, Camillus," was St. Philip Neri's welcome when he returned, "did I not tell you?"
Camillus was thirty years of age when he made his Franciscan experiment. For the last five years he had served faithfully at S. Giacomo; therefore, when he had failed at the monastery he was gladly taken back. More than that, he was appointed superintendent of the servants, and that in those days included the nurses, who were all men. Now it was that the real Camillus began to appear. Whether it was his Franciscan experience which had given him new ideals, or whether it was St. Philip who was training him to better things, from this moment Camillus became a new man. He had already learnt the value of unceasing work as a cure for his many temptations; now he discovered that the more he gave himself to helping others the happier man he became. He began to love the patients in the hospital, not merely to serve them; and the more he loved them the more he was troubled by the treatment they received, even in so comparatively well-regulated a hospital as S. Giacomo. One evening, as he stood in the middle of a ward, the thought occurred to him that good nursing depended on love that the more it was independent of mere wages the better it would be; that if he could gather men about him who would nurse for love, and would leave the wages to look after themselves, then he might hope to raise nursing to the standard he desired.
With this object in his mind Camillus carefully selected five men from among his fellow-servants in the hospital. He told them of his ideal, and of the way he hoped to attain it; the men rose to his suggestion, and agreed to throw in their lot with Camillus, pooling all their earnings, and living as much as possible together. But soon it was found this did not work; living in a public hospital, part of a general staff, they could not keep separate from the rest. If they wished to carry out their intention to the full they must have a home of their own.
Meanwhile another thought had come to Camillus. He had noticed that not only the servants often failed in their duty to the sick, but the priests failed as well, if he would have his company of nurses equal to his ambition, then it must include priests also. He would become one himself; illiterate as he was he set to work. First he found a chaplain of the hospital who undertook to teach him Latin during his leisure hours; later,
since by this means he made slow progress, he entered himself as a student at the Roman College, taught by the Jesuit fathers; and, at the age of thirty-two this lank figure of over six feet was henceforth to be seen among the little boys learning the elements of grammar. Naturally the boys were amused; they nicknamed Camillus the "Late Arrival," and would offer him their services to help him in his lessons. But Camillus persevered, and in 1584, when he was thirty-four years of age, he had the consolation of being ordained.
Now at last it may be said that the life of Camillus really began.
He took a house by the Tiber, in the lowest and most pestilential part of the city, and there set about the service of the sick wherever he might find them. One incident here is worthy of mention; it is said to be the only occasion when St. Philip Neri made a mistake in the diagnosis of anyone entrusted to his spiritual care. So long as Camillus was safe at his work in the hospital of S. Giacomo, St. Philip was happy about him; when he heard that he had left the place, and had taken up his abode in the lowest quarters of the town, he was not a little distressed.
Knowing Camillus's past, and his propensity for gambling, he was much afraid that his new surroundings would only revive the old temptation. Moreover he was convinced that this new departure was only another mark of that restless and obstinate nature which had already made his penitent seek in vain for admission among the Franciscans. He spoke sharply to Camillus; he advised him, for his own security, not to give up the work he was doing at S. Giacomo; if he disobeyed, Philip would be compelled to give him up. But Camillus held firm to his project; he knew he had found his true vocation and he would not yield, even though he loved St. Philip as more than a father, and from that moment, for a period at least, Philip Neri and Camillus de Lellis parted company. It is one more instance of the difference that can come even between the most charitable, and the most understanding, of saints.
It is not our object to speak of the wonderful Order, the Brothers of a Happy Death, which grew out of these humble beginnings; it is more to our purpose to watch how the mind of Camillus himself seemed steadily to expand, and how to each new light he responded without any reserve. At first he had the idea of founding an institution of hospital nurses; soon he realized that the sick outside hospitals were in far more need of good nursing than those within, and at once he made them the object of his special care. Next, in a time of pestilence, he saw how the stricken were, almost of necessity, neglected and allowed to die as they might; he bound himself and his followers by vow to visit pestilential areas whenever there was need, and in fulfillment of that vow numbers of his disciples gave their lives.
Following on this was his care of those actually dying. When the end was certain, many, especially among the poor, were left to their fate and nothing more was done for them; Camillus made the comfort and help of the dying so much his special object of charity that from that work alone his Order ultimately took its name.
So did his charity expand, and the memory of his own early days spurred him on, some would say, even to extravagance. No case was too abandoned for him to help; none too wicked for Camillus to put it away. Once, in 1590, in a time of famine and distress in the city, when, besides, the winter was exceptionally severe, Camillus was distributing clothes to the poor in his courtyard. Two of the recipients, as soon as they had the clothes in their hands, immediately gambled them away or sold them, and then ran off lest Camillus might discover what they had done. But Camillus was too quick for them; his old days told him why they had run away, and he sympathized. He followed after them and caught them up; then he brought them back and clothed them again as if nothing had happened. Naturally his friends remonstrated. They thought Camillus had not noticed what the rascals had done, and told him, bidding him leave them to their fate. But Camillus did not change. "What, my brothers," he replied, "do you see nothing but the rags of these poor creatures? And do you see nothing beneath the rags but the poor creatures themselves? St. Gregory gave to a man in rags, but the man was Jesus Christ Himself."
This story is only one of many. Of all the great apostles of charity perhaps there is none of whom so many stories are told of extreme generosity to the poorest of the poor. And we in modern times have reason to preserve the memory of Camillus, for we owe him two great debts. In the first place he may be said to be the founder of the modern nursing spirit; in the second place, without any doubt, we are indebted to him for the institution of the Red Cross. When the Order which he founded was formally approved by the Pope, that its members might be distinguished from other regulars, Camillus asked that they might be permitted to wear a red cross on their cassock and mantle. By an apostolic brief, dated 26th June, 1586, the permission was granted; and three days later, on the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, Camillus with a few of his followers came to St. Peter's, each wearing the red cross, and there dedicated themselves and their work to God for all time.
But the charity of Camillus was not confined only to the sick and dying; it spread out to every phase of wretched humanity, no matter where he found it. As he grew older he seemed to recall with greater vividness the miseries of his early days; often enough, when his companions or others ventured to protest against what seemed to them excess, he would only answer that he himself had once been in the same or greater need, and would go on as before. When he traveled, he invariably filled his purse with small coins, to be given to beggars on the way; sometimes, for the same purpose, he would have bags of bread tied to his saddle. He would imitate literally the Samaritan in the Gospel; if he found a sufferer on the road, he would take him to the nearest inn, have him cared for, and leave behind money for his maintenance while he stayed. Indeed, this constant habit of paying for the needs of others whom he met anywhere, and who seemed in any way poorer than himself, was often a source of no small embarrassment to those who traveled with him. Camillus never seemed to care; he was always giving; when his stock ran out he would keep an account of the needs of others and would send them shoes, and clothes, and the like as soon as he was able. Not even the poverty of his own house would stop him; once when a father-prefect had forbidden the distribution of bread at the gate, because there was not enough for the community, Camillus bade him revoke his order. "Did you sow and reap this bread?" he asked him. "I tell you, that if you will not do good to the poor, God will not do good to you; in the hour of your death it shall be measured out to you with the same measure with which you have measured out to such as these."
And again, when his disciples were afraid of his seemingly reckless giving, he said to them: "Trust in God, O cowards, and cast your bread into the river of life; soon you shall find it in the ocean of eternity."
Or when at least they suggested that it was enough to help those who came to them, he said: "If no poor could be found in the world, men ought to go in search of them, and dig them up from underground to do them good, and to be merciful to them."
Indeed, if one may distinguish the charity of Camillus from that of any hero of his class it was specially this: he was for ever "digging out the poor from underground to do them good." No one knew the slums or the ghetto of Rome better than Camillus; and all whom he found there, Christians or Jews or Turks, were all the same to him. He frequented the prisons; he would shave and wash the wretched convicts, and bade his companions do the same; he had special care of those condemned to death. Even the undiscovered poor did not escape him; he would inquire from neighbors whether they knew of widows or children in straitened circumstances, and when he found them those widows and children would find parcels of money and clothes coming to them from they knew not where.
Lastly we must mention his care of the very animals. He once found a newborn lamb lying in a ditch, apparently forgotten by the shepherds. He got off his horse, picked up the lamb and carried it in his cloak to the nearest sheepfold, where he gave it to those who would look after it. Another time he came across a dog with a broken leg. He cared for it and fed it regularly; when he had to leave the place he asked others to continue to look after it. "I, too, have had a bad leg," he said; "and I know the misery of not being able to walk. This is a creature of God, and a faithful creature, too. If I am as faithful to my master as a dog is to his, I shall do very well."
As we read incidents and sayings like these we seem to see the secret of the sanctity of Camillus; a depth of human sympathy, and virility, and love of life itself, which was at once the cause of his early wanderings and of his later heroism. In all greatness there is a certain disregard of consequences, be it in good or in evil; we say that the greatest mountains cast the deepest shadows. So was it with Camillus. In his early years this disregard led him to choose the life he did; later it would almost seem that it left him without any power to choose for himself at all. But one day, on a sudden, he seemed to awake. He saw something he had not seen before; he felt within himself a power to be and do which was not his own. Up to that time he had often tried and failed; from that moment he failed no more.
He made many mistakes; for years he was compelled to grope about; feeling his way, not knowing where he would end, perhaps not altogether caring. Still, during those years of groping it is clear that his willpower was being strengthened every day. It is not a little significant that whereas at the age of twenty-three he had not the will to resist a fellow-tramp, when he was thirty he could hold his own conviction against even a St. Philip Neri.
Once this willpower had been gained the rest of the growth of Camillus is comparatively easy to explain. He was a soldier by profession, for whom life had no surprises, to whom no degree of degradation came as a shock; he had gone through the worst and he knew. But he also knew that however low a man may fall he remains still a man; when he himself had been at his lowest he had never quite lost the memory of better things, nor the vague desire that he might be other than he was. From his own experience he was sure that the most wretched of men was more to be pitied than to be condemned; and if to be pitied, then to be helped if that was possible. With this knowledge, burnt into his soul during ten bitter years, and with the will now developed to act, the hero latent in Camillus began to appear. Nothing could stop him; not the anxious warning of a saint, not the discouragement of religious superiors, not the appeals of seculars who bade him be content with the good he was doing, not his own want of education, which seemed to exclude all possibility of the priesthood, not his naturally passionate nature, signs of which are manifest in him to the end. Like other saints, he began with nothing; as with them, the bread he gave multiplied within his hands; even more than has been the case with most saints, the stream he has set flowing has not been confined within the limits of a religious Order, but has overflowed its banks, and has materially affected the whole of our civilization.
Such has been the working of the grace of God in and through Camillus de Lellis, the trooper, the tramp. He founded his Congregation, and it was approved, in 1586, when he was thirty- six years of age. It was raised to the rank of an Order in 1591, and Camillus was appointed its first General. He held that office till 1607, when he persuaded his brethren, and the ecclesiastical authorities, to allow him to resign. He lived for seven years more, a humble subject in the Order which he himself had founded and, as is not uncommon in the lives of saints, if we may judge from certain signs, they were not the happiest years of his life. In 1613 it became evident to himself and to his brethren that he could not live much longer, and at his own request he was taken to Rome, that he might die in the Holy City.
But his preparation for death was characteristic of his life; so long as he could drag himself about he could not be kept from visiting the hospitals. When he could no longer go out, he still continued to visit the sick in his own house; and when that became impossible, then he set himself to writing many letters, to the many in the world who had helped him with their alms, and to his own brethren, that they might continue the good work. For himself, he did not forget what he had been. "I beseech you on my knees to pray for me," he said to the General of the Carmelites, who visited him on his death-bed, "for I have been a great sinner, a gambler, and a man of bad life."
As his mind began to wander it always went in the direction of God's mercy; he seemed never to tire of thanking Him for all He had done, through the merits of the Precious Blood of Christ. At length the end came. He stretched out his arms in the form of a cross, pronounced again his thanksgiving for the Blood of Christ, and died. It was in the evening of July 14th, 1614.
This excerpt is taken from the book SAINTS FOR SINNERS by Alban Goodier, S.J.
IMAGE BOOKS EDITION 1959
A Division of Doubleday & Company, Inc. New York
by special arrangement with Sheed & Ward, Inc.
Image Books edition published September, 1959