Rags to Red Cross

Some saints really stand the test of time. No matter how many centuries may divide us, certain saints lived through struggles and difficulties that we, many centuries later, can still relate to. This is particularly the case of St. Camillus de Lellis, whose feast falls on July 18.

Benedict XVI has already made this observation, citing St. Camillus in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” among St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Calcutta and others as “lasting models of charity for all people of good will.”

What makes St. Camillus unique among this holy lineup, is that up until the age of 32, no one would have guessed that the strange-looking, troubled young man had such a glorious destiny.

Camillus de Lellis was born in 1550 the son of a mercenary soldier. His mother died when Camillus was still a child. His father was a poor role model. An inveterate gambler, he was indifferent to which side he fought for; he even took part in the sack of Rome of 1527.

Raised in what modern jargon would dub a “dysfunctional home,” young Camillus grew up with little education, chronic foot abscesses and a gambling addiction. To pay his debts, he followed in his father’s footsteps, also becoming a soldier of fortune. At one of his lower moments, he lost his sword, gun and powder flasks — the tools of his trade. Camillus was destitute in body and spirit.

The conversion of Camillus did not come overnight. He tried to join the Franciscans, failed and returned to his old ways. He rose and fell many times before setting his feet firmly on the right path.

Rome played a big part in Camillus’ conversion. He came to the hospice of St. James of the Incurable, a few steps from today’s shopping mecca of the Spanish Steps, looking for treatment for his feet. In return he offered to help care for the sick and dying in the hospital.

As he gave more of his time, love and attention to the ill, he began to heal both spiritually and physically. He stopped gambling and his infirmities bothered him less.

Providence sent Camillus an extraordinary spiritual director. St. Phillip Neri met the lost young man and took him under his wing.

Camillus found himself wanting to become more, so he could offer more. The 6-foot-6-inch lanky wastrel went to school, learning his grammar lessons along the bright-eyed school boys of the Jesuit Roman College. In this setting, he learned not only letters, but humility.

He was finally ordained a priest in 1584 and founded his order, the Brothers of a Happy Death. Although he treated the sick and poor, he gave special attention to comforting the dying.

His checkered past served him in his work. No case was too far gone for him to take an interest, because he remembered how lost he had been. He could recognize the signs of addictions immediately and thus was able to understand and help people who would be dismissed by others.

In “Deus Caritas Est,” the Holy Father reflected that saints demonstrate how “those who draw near to God do not withdraw from men, but rather become truly close to them.” St. Camillus’ “self-help” — to put it in contemporary terms — focused on seeing Jesus in other people rather than brooding over himself; counsel that serves well in our own age.

The Brothers of a Happy Death in plague areas, disaster zones or hospitals were easily distinguished by the red crosses they wore on the front of their uniforms.

Even today, the Red Cross is synonymous with medical aid, although the origin of the modern symbol is apparently different. The founder of the modern Red Cross, Henri Dunant, was Swiss. He witnessed the suffering of the wounded during the battle of Solferino in 1859 and recruited nearby villagers to help tend to the fallen.

The initiative of Dunant was ratified during the Geneva Convention and the red cross on a white field, the inverse of the Swiss flag, was chosen as their symbol in honor of Dunant’s origins.

Whether the two symbols are related or not, for half a millennium, the red cross has brought hope to the afflicted and solace to the suffering.


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