Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614) founded the Order of the Ministers of the Sick. It is still a flourishing organisation, which now serves not only in Europe, but also in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia.
As a young man, though, Camillus was very far from being a saint. A nobleman’s son from the Abruzzi region in central Italy, he grew up a huge man (6ft 6in tall, with a girth to match), feared for his outbursts of temper.
At 17 he joined the Venetian army to fight against the Turks. He was ruined, however, by his passion for gambling, eventually losing everything down to the shirt on his back, which he forfeited in Naples in 1574.
At some stage, too, Camillus contracted a painful and disgusting infection – probably open ulcers – in his leg, which obliged him to spend time in the San Giancomo hospital in Rome.
It seemed that his life would end in failure and degradation. In extremis, however, he remembered that he had once vowed to join the Franciscans, and made his way to the new Capuchin friary in the town of Manfredonia, where he was set to work as a labourer.
The head of the house persuaded him to repent of his wasted youth, to such effect that in 1574 Camillus applied to become a novice. The poor state of his health prevented this; and so, with the illogicality of the divinely inspired, he returned to San Giancomo to tend the incurably sick.
Advised by St Philip Neri, and financed by a rich patron, Camillus decided to establish an order of male nurses. Always before him were the words of Jesus: “Whenever you did this to the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” With two companions he went to work at the hospital of San Spirito in Rome. His little spare time was devoted to study at the Roman College, until in 1584 he was ordained.
Next year he rented a larger house for his increasing number of helpers. Careless of the danger – in fact two of the brothers died – they devoted themselves to victims of the plague.
Pope Gregory XIV gave the order formal approval in 1591. There were then 26 members, who adopted black habits marked with a red cross.
In 1595, and again in 1601, some of the brothers went to Hungary and Croatia in order to nurse the wounded on the battlefields. In Rome they ministered to galley slaves.
Yet, for all his spiritual idealism, Camillus took a severely practical approach to nursing. “I don’t like this talk about mystical union,” he said. “We should do good and help the poor. We shall have plenty of time to contemplate God in heaven.”