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Soldier Saints: Camillus of Lellis

Resurrection is counting down to Veteran's Day by featuring Soldier Saints. Logan Isaac created this countdown as a way for churches to support and welcome veterans. The excerpt below is reposted by permission from Logan's book For God and Country [in that order], © 2013 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va.


Today's featured Soldier Saint is Camillus of Lellis.



The image of a red cross has become a global symbol of medical assistance in conflict-ridden areas. Internationally, the modern Red Cross organizes disaster relief and protects victims of armed conflict, including combatants, refugees, and prisoners of war.


The group has won three Nobel Peace Prizes for acting as a neutral mediator between states in conflict, among other incredible feats. Many think that prior to the Red Cross’s founding in the eighteenth century, no organized, well-established army nursing systems for casualties existed, nor any safe and protected institutions to accommodate and treat those wounded on the battlefield. But Saint Camillus’s story proves otherwise.


Like many volunteers in today’s military forces, Camillus enlisted at only seventeen years of age, in 1567, in the same Venetian legion his father had served. Sometime during his many years in the military, he sustained a leg wound that failed to properly heal. Camillus knew well the suffering of those in war and elsewhere. He also shared with many soldiers and veterans a penchant for gambling and risk-taking that marks the martial fraternity even today.


In the midst of his military career, he encountered several monastic orders in which he developed an interest, but which refused to admit him, possibly on account of his active duty service in the Venetian army. Perhaps feeling religiously slighted, he returned to battle, this time against the Turks.


In 1574, his regiment was disbanded and he went to work for a group of Capuchin friars, an offshoot of the Franciscan order. These men had such an effect on him that he was fully converted within a year. His attempts to join the order were denied repeatedly on account of his leg wound, but he was permitted to be a lay brother for a time. He was quite familiar with hospitals as a frequent patient for either his incurable leg or injuries he sustained as a result of drinking or gambling during his military service.


Determined to become a priest, he moved to Rome and began rising in the ranks of the Hospital for Incurables there, first as a nurse and eventually assuming the role of director. His resume reflected his improving demeanor, and many in Rome saw his success not just in the hospital but also in the city; in the face of the bubonic plague he was known as the Saint of Rome. On Pentecost in 1584, he was finally ordained and briefly left the hospital for the seminary. He studied at the newly established Jesuit college in Rome,1 where he would establish a new religious order, the Clerks Regular, Ministers to the Infirm (abbreviated M.I.).


In 1591, Pope Gregory XV elevated Camillus and his followers-the Camillians-to a full order, recognizing the former Venetian soldier’s pioneering care not just in hospitals, but also at the homes of the sick and, soon, right in the midst of battle he knew so well as a youth. It was this effort that led to the establishment of a ministry that cared for wounded soldiers on the battlefield-the first field medical unit.


The wounded piled up so quickly in some units that their own comrades buried some alive in their haste. Camillus ordered his men to wait no less than fifteen minutes after the last sign of life to protect the unconscious wounded soldiers from this awful fate. To clearly mark themselves as neutral ministers to the sick on both sides of the fight, Camillus needed a symbol that combatants could identify from afar. The cross was an obvious choice, but not the usual earthen tone of brown or black. He chose instead to use a bright red to stand out on the Carmillian’s dark habits (the simple garments of monks and itinerant priests).


During the Battle of Canizza in 1601, the tent out of which the brothers operated caught fire and everything inside was destroyed, except for a swatch of dark clothing surrounding the red cross emblematic of Camillus’s order. The Camillians took this as a divine sign of approval for the work they did on the battlefield. The red cross thus came into being in the seventeenth century, long before the Red Cross was formed as an international organization. Long before there were organization mission statements, Camillians vowed “to serve the sick, even with danger to one’s own life.”2


Caring for the sick is always a trying endeavor. One sees ghastly wounds and unquenchable human distress and despair in war. Medics on battlefields see all kinds of obscenities that produces, and depression is a real threat. But Jesus told Camillus, “Fear not, for this is not your work but mine.” Just as he found courage on the battlefield, Camillus overcame fear with faith, hope, and love. He taught the brothers of his order that the hospital was a “house of God, a garden where the voices of the sick were music from heaven.”3 He himself died in 1614 and we celebrate his life on the day of his death, on July 14th.


Lord God almighty, who descended into hell in order to liberate the oppressed, we thank you for the witness of your servant Camillus, who, after having been set free by the blessing of the cross, followed your Son’s example by returning to the hell of war, bearing the very sign of his redemption to the wounded and weary in need. May his courage and humility continue to bless our lives and make possible our own humble confidence in the face of overwhelming danger and temptation, through Jesus Christ, our heavenly commander. Amen


1 The very first university established by the Jesuits, in 1551, it is today known as Pontifical Gregorian University.


2 Roman Catholic religious orders all make at least three vows, of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This fourth vow taken by Camillians reflects the centrality of bodily sacrifice for the order established by Camillus, which is somewhat similar to the readiness of military personnel to risk their lives for the sake of others. Learn more at http://www.camillians.org.


3 http://www.camillians.org/History.php, retrieved May 21, 2013.

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