Advocate of the Poor IV

St.Camillus: Advocate of the Poor IV

The Red Cross of the Ministers of the Sick was, and continues to be, an indication that their lives are consecrated to the relief, comfort and love of the sick and dying, who represent the suffering Christ. It was in that sense that the Red Cross was first conceived. From the beginning of the summer 1590 till the end of 1591, Rome was being inflicted by famine and epidemics. Camillus and his Religious gave all their energy and time to assisting the sick and poverty-stricken. Urged by his ardent generosity, Camillus claimed it to be his privileged responsibility to look after the destitute. Each day he had tasty soup prepared in the kitchen in addition to whatever bread he could lay hands on. At mid-day all the poor that could make their way to the monastery, received soup and a loaf. When, to move all danger of contagion, the Roman governor decided to evacuate many of these unfortunate people, Camillus, deeply grieved, complained that they would die from sheer hardship. He went as far as offering to support as many as he could himself. His offer went unheeded. Some of these wretches escaped the clutches of the soldiers And concealed themselves in hiding places. They were not out of reach, however, of the provident charity of Camillus and his Religious.

His first thoughts focused on the afflicted who had sought refuge and concealment in the grottoes and nooks of the Colosseum. Equipped with a torch, he courageously penetrated these death-chambers pouring out soothing balms on the emaciated victims and rendering first aid. He regretted that he was not possessed of a hundred hands to bring help to every place. The two he had, he used hard and fast. Next his zeal directed him to the houses of the very poor. He showed a mother’s loving care for the babies, whom he gently removed from maternal bosoms lest these infants drink in death itself. He prepared their feeding bottles, and with a mother’s insight and tenderness that only charity could prompt, cleaned and washed them from head to foot. The bigger children were likewise looked after. He dressed them, combed their hair, as well as cooked their meals. He cleaned the house, set everything in order before leaving and returned the next morning with further provisions.

The heroic devotion that Ministers of the Sick had shown by their untiring efforts in relieving the poor edified and stirred all Rome. It was the general conviction that the new Institute was a great benefit and boon to the sick and dying. In view of that, Pope Gregory XIV gave it his definitive approval, placing it among the new Religious Orders called Clerics Regular, with the right to take the three solemn vows, and a fourth one, namely to assist the sick, even at the risk of one’s life. The Bull received the pontifical signature on September 21, 1591, shortly before the Pope’s death. On December 8, the feast of the Immaculate conception Camillus and twenty five companions made their perpetual profession before a papal delegate. It took place in the church of the Magdalen which Camillus had rendered, with the house annexed, from the Confraternity of Gonfalone. And it became the Mother House of the Order for all time. Some days later, Camillus and his companions made a pilgrimage to the Seven Churches of Rome. Standing between the columns of the Palatino, he delivered a memorable discourse: “God is to entrust to this young humble Congregation the treasure of charity for the sick…A day will come when this small family shall spread throughout the world and sanctify many souls.” Camillus was greatly concerned with the training of his Religious in their work of charity. He took a keen and personal interest in their formation. He showed them how to handle the patients, how to make beds. He prescribed the way to wash them, to change the linen. He had the sheets renewed as frequently as necessity demanded. He gave to patients their bath under constant vigilance, administering medicines, prescribed by the physician, with strict punctuality.

Camillus was not only a good and experienced master in the technique of assisting the sick, but he was a genuine man of charity; a physician for soul and body and an engaging personality; when his tall figure bent over feeble and suffering patients, it diffused peace and courage. When Camillus was occupied with a patient, as hundreds have witnessed, he was so intensely absorbed in his task that all else was forgotten.

Camillus was no sentimentalist, nor was his charity inspired by human or natural motives. There was nothing in the hospitals of the sixteenth century that offered any appeal to the senses. On the contrary, there was much that was repulsive. You had to fight your instincts, your natural aversions and feelings in order to keep tending the sick. Grace alone had shaped this change in Camillus. Out of the love of God and in expiation of his sins, he bravely subdued whatever repulsion he experienced, willingly suffered the penance of this hard life and calmly received insults and contempt. Camillus himself saw, served and loved Jesus in the sick with such great faith that often, lost to all around, he would fall into an ecstasy before the most hideous and deformed images of his Creator.

Death is good and Sweet
When engaged in looking after the needs of their bodies, Camillus never lost sight of the soul. After looking after the body, he nourished the soul with pious discourses, good reading, an explanation of the catechism or a talk on the Gospel. His words were finned to with evident pleasure, and the patients felt quite revived. Camillus prepared the sick for Confession and holy Communion. He saw to it that each one enjoyed the utmost liberty in the choice of a confessor as often as he wished. For the monthly general Communion he always prepared a great feast. Camillus showed great diligence when he was preparing dying for their last journey. The people called Camillus the ‘angel of the dying’ and his followers ‘the fathers of a happy death.’ In the sick-room his very presence brought peace and order.

Camillus and his religious had promised, by a fourth solemn vow, to nurse the sick stricken with contagious diseases. Occasion presented themselves to Camillus and his followers to practice this vow. Besides the epidemic of 1590-91, almost every summer Rome and Naples saw many of their citizens struck down by plague. Camillus and his disciples snatched thousands from certain death. But it was at the price of many Camillian lives. In an outbreak of the pest at Nola in 1600, five Ministers of the Sick fell martyrs to their vow. Milan was visited by the pest in 1594 and many of the ministers of the sick were called upon to give assistance in the pest-house of Saint Gregory. The pest disappeared for a few years, only to raise its ugly head once again in the year 1630. Seventeen Ministers of the sick tending pest-stricken lost their lives in this noble act.

HIS DELIGHT Always a lover of his fellow-men, he could never pass by a sick or an invalid person on the road without stooping to lend a helping hand. Placing the unfortunate man on his shoulders, he went off to the nearest hospital. In visiting the prisoners, especially those in the infirmary, he was laden down with provisions, clothing and medicine.

Through every misfortune
Camillus was never a Stanger to misfortunes and by a divinely given instinct he sensed them. Once on a sea-voyage he went down into the hold of the ship to offer a word of comfort to the galley-slaves, and afterwards earnestly exhorted the captain to treat these unfortunate creatures as human beings and Christians. When he had placed a medal of the heavenly Mother around their necks, he proceeded to consecrate each of them to the merciful slavery of Her, through whose loving intercession the sorrows and dishonor of this present life are changed into so many rays of hope for the next.

LOVE OF FATHERLAND Camillus cherished a deep love for the land of Abruzzo and for his fellow-citizens of Bucchianico. This natural sentiment was enhanced, as he humbly confessed, by a strong desire to remedy the evil examples he had left from the days of his youth, as a sad inheritance, to the peasants. So after eighteen years’ absence, he returned as a priest to his native country, bringing with him some of his companions. They all bore the Red Cross. Bucchianico was agog with admiration. The old people related the story of Camilla’s dream to the little ones, not without dramatizing episodes in the life of this son of “Saint Elizabeth.” “Yes, this is, indeed, the cross”, Camillus would conform with emotion, which my mother believed was to be our downfall. But the Lord in His mercy has made it a sign of redemption and love to the poor sick and sufferers. This dear land of his was to experience the manifold benefits of the new Order. There broke out a widespread famine; Camillus and his disciples labored hard to reduce its ravages. How food was multiplied in one case astonished all. Even to this day people hand down the story of the miracle of beans. It appears that in spite of general drought, the garden of the Religious produced an inexhaustible crop of wholesome, large beans. Inviting the hungry population to partake of them to their heart’s content, Camillus saw his charity rewarded by an increasing growth of beans, despite the obstinate drought and cold, sufficient to provide for all needs.

With the solemn approval of the ecclesiastical authority, this new Order of the Ministers of the Sick could proceed to extend and consolidate its work. Camillus had opened a house of his Order at Naples about 1588, after his profession. Now he set about establishing fresh branches of the Institute in such places as Milan, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, Messina, Palermo, Viterbo, Ferrara, Mantua, Bucchianico, his native place, Chieti and Caltagirone. It was his holy ambition to staff all the hospitals big and small. All stood in need of his zealous and understanding Ministers of the Sick, of these nurses qualified in charity, virtue and science. To all which 16th century art and genius achieved in the line of material reconstruction, Camillus created its spiritual counter-part in the hospitals. It was a work of reform which Camillus was eager to accomplish, and accomplish he did. Patients everywhere soon felt the benefit of his work. Besides the constant, compassionate and motherly care hitherto unknown, they also enjoyed the finest medical and surgical treatment of the day. The sick were to be tended in an atmosphere of intelligent and enlightened charity.

In the monastery, he was everybody’s helper. As the occasions arose, he assisted the mason or the builder, the cook or the refectory brother. Washing the dishes after meals was his cherished privilege. Seven years before his death (1607), he succeeded in resigning the office of General, in order to have more time to tend the sick in the hospitals. Prostrate before the Cardinal Protector, Domenico Ginnasi, he offered his irrevocable resignation. He had never even as much as thought of his rightto the title of Founder. In all sincerity he had once confessed to one of his Religious: “The Founder of the Order of the Ministers of the Sick was and is our Crucified Lord.”

In the declining years of his life Camillus spent both day and night in attending the sick in the hospital of the Holy Spirit. He however agreed to accompany the new Father General on his visitation of the houses of the Order to see for the last time his beloved sons. He availed himself of the occasion to recommend them to his loving and august Patroness and Mother, our Lady of Loreto. For the last time, too, his blessed hands were raised over them in earnest supplication to the Almighty to bestow His choicest graces on them, their ministry and concerns. In the hospitals the sick, infirm and destitute bewailed his leaving them while he, on his part, commended them to the mercy of God. The Community at Genoa strove to keep him there, but Camillus answered: “No, I must die inRome…” Prince Doria was among the huge crowds gathered to bid adieu to their common father. As Camillus opened his arms wide in a gesture of his all-embracing love, one could more readily appreciate the meaning of the Red Cross as it stood out on his breast like a glowing furnace of charity.

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