Red Cross I

St. Camillus: Saint of the Red Cross I

St. Camillus was a man and a saint of his time, the sixteenth century, the age of contrasts. A golden era in literature and art; a century of shadows by its heresies and vices; a period of great wealth and of great want. Camillus de Lellis embodied the contrasts of his time. He was rich and poor, noble and disinherited; was nurse and invalid, sinner and believer. Finally, he overcame, from within and without, all that was opposed to what is good and noble. He embraced voluntary poverty, though he spared no expense where the poor were concerned. A genius divinely enlightened in the science and virtue of charity, who was a stranger to the learning of the day. Although he suffered from infirmities in his body, he was a giant and a man of iron in sustaining the weaknesses and infirmities of others. Humble and contrite accuser of himself, he was exalted by God and man. He became and remains the Saint and Benefactor of Mankind.

The family of St. Camillus
De Lellis family was gifted with a son whom they named Joseph, but after few years the little Joseph died. After the death of Joseph they had to wait, asking God for many years, by prayer and alms, the grace of another child. God answered their prayers when Camilla was sixty years of age. While Camillus was in her womb, she saw in a dream a multitude of children with red crosses on their chests, led by a tall boy carrying a flag with a red cross on it. Vividly impressed and fearing that her son should be a child of malediction, a source of crosses she redoubled her prayers and alms, offering to God her own life and that of her future offspring, rather than he should live unworthy of his calling.

The Birth of Camillus
Camillus was born on a Sunday, May 25, 1550. On this day Camilla though physically unfit went to Church to celebrate the combined feast of St. Urban and Pentecost. During the elevation of the sacred host she felt labor pain and her friends assisted her home praying specially to Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to whom Camilla had great devotion. Surprisingly she had to give birth to her son in a stable. Since it was difficult to reach the house. The neighbors and whole village stood speechless at this miraculous event. The father, captain and commander of the local army hurried off home to see the newly-born. Some days later the babe was carried to the church to be baptized with all the solemnity. The boy was named Camillus after the mother, a name which already indicated the ways of Divine Providence, that is: a servant of the sick. Lady Elizabeth, or Saint Elizabeth as the good people of Bucchianico used to call the pious mother of Camillus on account of giving birth to a child at her advanced age, wished to bring up her son in the fear of God. But she slowly lost the grip of her son, when his cousins especially Onofrio invited him to play. Camillus preferred the streets and distractions of his friends to the more composed habits and quietness of his home. Camillus, on the streets, was the king of gamblers, the leader of every hazardous enterprise and the predominant personality in unruly scenes. When only thirteen, he was so tall and robust that none of his colleagues could match his size, much less look down on him. This character of Camillus increased the fear of the mother for she was often reminded of her dream. His distressed mother on her death bed exclaimed: “Oh, my Son, will you be then the cross I dreamt of, and the downfall of our family. Shall my tears and prayers be in vain ?” Camillus was only thirteen or fourteen years when his mother died with a heart heavy with the fearful dream. Camillus was little disturbed by his mother’s death. There did remain, however, embedded in his memory like a nail, that dream of hers about the cross. His fighting spirit, a part of his very nature, was enflamed by the many tales of his warring father as well as by the wars which rent Italy in those days. Eventually it led the dynamic youth to enroll in the army.

When only seventeen years he went off withhis father to fight against the Turks at Lepanto.At Ancona, however, the father became sick andin a few days died. Father left nothing out for the young Camillus even a house to lay down, but his father’s last words touched Camillus, “May God watch over you, live an honest life as your mother taught you.” The death of his father profoundly affected him, for he was even heartbroken now than at the death of his mother. His right leg was wounded due to his long fatigue journey on foot for the war. It started with a small blister in his left foot and when it dried up in the same area of the right foot another blister formed. It was considered as a special wound and the modern physicians would have diagnosed as very cankerous varicose vein. He stayed at the hospital of St. James to treat this wound. At the end of 1571, he left again for the war, fighting in Dalmatia and Africa. The cards and dice were always near at hand. Three times he had close escapes from death: during an epidemic in Dalmatia, at the siege of Goletta in Africa and in an unforgettable storm at sea. Each time he resolved to change his life, but his passion for gambling soon overcame his good resolutions. Like a violent fever, it played a havoc with this ardent young man. He gambled away his paternal patrimony, his military equipment, his arms and evenhis very shirt. Towards the late Autumn of 1574, discharged from the army and without any capacity or desire to work, ragged and half-naked, Camillus left Naples and later Rome. He turned his steps towards Barletta in the hope of finding some employment. At Manfredonia, on November 30, while he was begging for alms at the door of the cathedral, a gentleman offered him the job of mason’s helper. After some hesitation, he accepted and found himself in close contact with the Capuchin Fathers, whose monastery was under repair. Two donkeys were placed at his disposal to draw stones and gravel. Mortified and discontented, he had to fight strenuously for self-control. To adapt himself to this hated labor he often went so far as to bite his hands out of sheer anger. Necessity kept him at his work, without, however, inducing him to live with the Friars: although one of the older fathers had offered him keep and clothing because of the rigorous cold. Camillus preferred the biting winds to such charity. His obstinate soldier’s heart did not yet heed Cod’s calling.

One day Camillus was sent by the Capuchins of Manfredonia to those of Saint John Rotondo to bring some provisions. Camillus received a cordial welcome by Fr.Angelo and the warm words spoken by the father touched his heart. Camillus listened attentively to the words of the Fr.Angelo, “On this land we live awaiting death…God is everything and rest is nothing.” Deep from within Camillus could hear the voice of his mother about the dream. That night Camillus did not sleep; in a silence, crowded with memories, the words addressed to him rang loud in his heart, like blows of a hammer on bronze. The following morning, February 2nd 1575, on the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, he assisted at Mass, loaded his donkey and went his way. On his journey the chastening words of the Friar reechoed in his soul. At times so disgusted was he with himself that it left him crushedand prostrate. He broke down finally, threw himself on the ground and violently striking his breast, he exclaimed in a loud voice: No Lord, no! Forgive me forever. Make me shed all the tears necessary to wash away all my terrible sins. When he rose, he felt like another person.

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