Saint Camillus de Lellis (1550–1614) started off, as many saints do, as a sinner, far from God and concerned with his own desires.
His father was a soldier, a mercenary who hired his services to whatever army would pay him the most, and part of the imperial army that sacked Rome in 1527. He took part in gambling and the common vices of soldiers of his day. He spent little time at home and left the upbringing of Camillus to his mother.
Camillus, tall and thin as a youth, was attracted by the warrior model of his father. With his quick temper and unwillingness to be taught, he gave his mother much grief. She died when he was 12, but in spite of his flaws, thanks to her, he had developed a deep-rooted love for the Faith. He believed in prayer and the sacraments, but prayed sporadically, and received the sacraments without consistency.
He was put under the care of relatives while dreaming of growing old enough to join his father on the road of war. When the time came, he did just that. They fought and adventured together, living for the moment.
One day they found themselves fatigued and ill from battle. Camillus put his father first and helped find them care. But his father would not make it. On his deathbed, he regretted the rugged, frivolous life he led, and with true fervor, he confessed and received the last rites.
Camillus continued down the same path but began to reflect on his ways. After falling into more gambling and wayward living, he felt the need to seek God and decided to go to a Capuchin friary at Manfredonia. The Capuchins saw the good in him, but a running wound he had somehow acquired above his ankle would not heal. The Franciscans would not keep him.
Camillus went to the hospital of St. James in Rome, which took in incurable cases. He received temporary relief for his ankle and met St. Philip Neri, who became his spiritual director and confessor.
He became a caregiver for the sick and injured and enjoyed his work. He noticed how the regular staff gave poor attention to the patients, and he strived to do better. Under the guidance of St. Philip and the grace of God, he grew daily in holiness and would wear a hair shirt in penance for his past sins.
Speaking with other pious men, they began to make plans to establish a religious order dedicated to caring for the sick. He struggled to learn Latin, but persevered and was ordained on Pentecost of 1584 by the bishop of St. Asaph, Wales — the last surviving Catholic bishop of Great Britain since King Henry VIII revolted against the Church and established the Church of England.
Camillus was then able to found the Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers of the Infirm (M.I.), better known as the Camillians. They bravely assisted soldiers on the battlefield and in house and vowed to care for the sick, injured or diseased, despite any harms that might come to them.
Camillus received permission for them to have a large, red cross on their cassock. On a particular occasion, a fire engulfed one of their tents and the only item to remain was the red cross emblem. It remains a symbol of the Congregation to this day — a symbol universally recognized today as the sign of charity and service. This was the original Red Cross, hundreds of years before the secular International Red Cross would be formed.
In 1586, Pope Sixtus V formally recognized the Camillians as a Congregation, and assigned them the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Rome, which they still maintain.
Pope Gregory XV raised the Congregation to the status of an Order in 1591. Camillus then established a fourth religious vow unique to their Order: "to serve the sick, even with danger to one's own life."
Even though the wound on his ankle persisted and worsened, Camillus would continue to attend to the sick by crawling to them. In 1607, he resigned as the Superior General of the Order but continued to serve as Vicar General.
Communities of his Order spread throughout Italy, as far as Hungary. In 1614, he fell ill and died in Rome, and was entombed at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, where his remains rest within the altar.
On his deathbed, he wrote to several communities and people who had helped him throughout his life and his own brethren, encouraging them to continue the good they had so heroically accomplished by the grace of God.
Even at his end, he did not forget his past. "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."
Camillus was beatified by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742 and canonized by him four years later in 1746.
The Congregation of the Servants of the Sick of St. Camillus, the Daughters of St. Camillus, the Lay Camillian Family and more Catholic apostolates were founded on the virtues and spirituality of Camillus.
St. Camillus de Lellis is the patron saint of the sick, hospitals, nurses and physicians. His intercession is also sought to combat gambling.