He was born in 1550 at Bacchianico, in Abruzzo, in the kingdom of Naples. He lost his mother in his infancy, and six years after his father, who was a gentleman, and had been an officer, first in the Neapolitan and afterwards in the French troops in Italy. Camillus having learned only to read and write, entered himself young in the army, and served first in the Venetian, and afterwards in the Neapolitan troops, till, in 1574, his company was disbanded. He had contracted so violent a passion for cards and gaming, that he sometimes lost even necessaries. All playing at lawful games for exorbitant sums, and absolutely all games of hazard for considerable sums are forbidden by the law of nature, by the imperial or civil law, by the severest laws of all Christian or civilized nations, and by the canons of the church. No contract is justifiable in which neither reason nor proportion is observed. Nor can it be consistent with the natural law of justice for a man to stake any sum on blind chance, or to expose, without a reasonable equivalent or necessity, so much of his own or antagonist’s money, that the loss would notably distress himself or any other person. Also many other sins are inseparable from a spirit of gaming, which springs from avarice, is so hardened as to rejoice in the loss of others, and is the source and immediate occasion of many other vices. The best remedy for this vice is, that those who are infected with it be obliged, or at least exhorted, to give whatever they have won to the poor.
Camillus was insensible of the evils attending gaming, till necessity compelled him to open his eyes; for he at length was reduced to such straits, that for a subsistence he was obliged to drive two asses, and to work at a building which belonged to the Capuchin friars. The divine mercy had not abandoned him through all his wanderings, but had often visited him with strong interior calls to penance. A moving exhortation which the guardian of the Capuchins one day made him, completed his conversion. Ruminating on it as he rode from him upon his business, he at length alighted, fell on his knees, and vehemently striking his breast, with many tears and loud groans deplored his past unthinking, sinful life, and cried to heaven for mercy. This happened in February, in the year 1575, the twenty-fifth of his age; and from that time to his last breath he never interrupted his penitential course. He made an essay of a novitiate both among the Capuchins and the Grey Friars; but could not be admitted to his religious profession among either on account of a running sore in one of his legs, which was judged incurable. Therefore leaving his own country he went to Rome, and there served the sick in Saint James’s hospital of incurables four years with great fervour. He wore a knotty hair shirt, and a rough brass girdle next his skin; watched night and day about the sick, especially those who were dying, with the most scrupulous attention. He was most zealous to suggest to them devout acts of virtue and to procure them every spiritual help. Fervent humble prayer was the assiduous exercise of his soul, and he received the holy communion every Sunday and holiday, making use of Saint Philip Neri for his confessarius. The provisors or administrators having been witnesses to his charity, prudence, and piety, after some time appointed him director of the hospital.
Camillus grieving to see the sloth of hired servants in attending the sick, formed a project of associating certain pious persons for that office who should be desirous to devote themselves to it out of a motive of fervent charity. He found proper persons so disposed; but met with great obstacles in the execution of his design. With a view of rendering himself more useful in spiritually assisting the sick, he took a resolution to prepare himself to receive holy orders. For this purpose he went through a course of studies with incredible alacrity and ardour, and received all his orders from Thomas Goldwell, bishop of Saint Asaph’s, suffragan to Cardinal Savelli, the bishop vicegerent in Rome, under Pope Gregory XIII. A certain gentleman of Rome, named Firmo Calmo, gave the saint six hundred Roman sequines of gold (about two hundred and fifty pounds sterling), which he put out for an annuity of thirty-six sequines a year during his life; this amounting to a competent patrimony for the title of his ordination, required by the council of Trent and the laws of the diocess. The same pious gentleman, besides frequent great benefactions during his life, bequeathed his whole estate real and personal on Camillus’s hospital at his death. The saint was ordained priest at Whitsuntide in 1584, and being nominated to serve a little chapel called our Lady’s ad miracula, he quitted the direction of the hospital. Before the close of the same year he laid the foundation of his congregation for serving the sick, giving to those who were admitted into it a long black garment with a black cloth for their habit. The saint prescribed them certain short rules, and they went every day to the great hospital of the Holy Ghost, where they served the sick with so much affection, piety, and diligence, that it was visible to all who saw them, they considered Christ himself as lying sick or wounded in his members.
They made the beds of the patients, paid them every office of charity, and by their short pathetic exhortations disposed them for the last sacraments, and a happy death. The founder had powerful adversaries and great difficulties to struggle with; but by confidence in God he conquered them all. In 1585 his friends hired for him a large house, and the success of his undertaking encouraged him to extend further his pious views; for he ordained that the members of his congregation should bind themselves by the obligation of their institute, to serve persons infected with the plague, prisoners, and those who lie dying in private houses.
Sickness is often the most severe and grievous of all trials, whence the devil made it his last assault in tempting Job. It is a time in which a Christian stands in need of the greatest constancy and fortitude; yet through the weakness of nature, is generally the least able to keep his heart united with God, and usually never stands more in need of spiritual comfort and assistance. The state of sickness is always a visitation of God, who by it knocks at the door of our heart, and puts us in mind of death; it is the touchstone of patience, and the school or rather the harvest of penance, resignation, divine love, and every virtue; yet by a most fatal abuse is this mercy often lost and perverted by sloth, impatience, sensuality, and frowardness. Those who in time of health were backward in exercising fervent acts of faith, hope, charity, contrition, etc., in sickness are still more indisposed for practices with which they are unacquainted; and to their grievous misfortune sometimes pastors cannot sufficiently attend them, or have not a suitable address which will give them the key of their hearts, or teach them the art of insinuating into the souls of penitents the heroic sentiments and an interior relish of those essential virtues.
This consideration moved Camillus to make it the chief end of his new establishment, to afford or procure the sick all spiritual succour, discreetly to suggest to them short pathetic acts of compunction and other virtues, to read by them, and to pray for them. For this end he furnished his priests with proper books of devotion, especially on penance and on the sufferings of Christ; and he taught them to have always at hand the most suitable ejaculations extracted from the psalms and other devotions. But dying persons were the principal object of our saint’s pious zeal and charity. A man’s last moments are the most precious of his whole life; and are of infinite importance, as on them depends his eternal lot. Then the devil useth his utmost efforts to ruin a soul, and cometh down, having great wrath, knowing that he hath but a short time. The saint therefore redoubled his earnestness to afford every spiritual help to persons who seemed in danger of death. He put them early in mind to settle their temporal concerns, that their thoughts might be afterwards employed entirely on the affair of their soul. He advised those friends not to approach them too much, whose sight or immoderate grief could only disturb or afflict them. He disposed them to receive the last sacraments by the most perfect acts of compunction, resignation, faith, hope, and divine love; and he taught them to make death a voluntary sacrifice of themselves to the divine will, and in satisfaction for sin; of which it is the punishment. He instructed them to conjure their blessed Redeemer by the bitter anguish which his divine heart felt in the garden and on the cross, and by his prayer with a loud voice and tears, in which he deserved to be heard for his reverence, that he would show them mercy, and give them the grace to offer up their death in union with his most precious death, and to receive their soul as he with his last breath recommended his own divine soul into the hands of his heavenly Father, and with it those of all his elect to the end of the world. He instituted prayers for all persons in their agony, or who were near their death.
Every one was charmed at so perfect a project of charity, and all admired that such noble views, and so great an undertaking should have been reserved to an obscure, illiterate person. Pope Sixtus V confirmed this congregation in 1586, and ordered that it should be governed by a triennial superior. Camillus was the first, and Roger, an Englishman, was one of his first companions. The church of Saint Mary Magdalen was bestowed on him for the use of his congregation. In 1588 he was invited to Naples, and with twelve companions founded there a new house. Certain galleys having the plague on board were forbidden to enter the harbour. Wherefore these pious Servants of the sick (for that was the name they took) went on board, and attended them; on which occasion two of their number died of the pestilence, and were the first martyrs of charity in this holy institute. Saint Camillus showed a like charity in Rome when a pestilential fever swept off great numbers, and again when that city was visited by a violent famine. In 1591 Gregory XV erected this congregation into a religious Order, with all the privileges of the mendicant Orders, and under one obligation of the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and perpetually serving the sick, even those infected with the plague; he forbade these religious men to pass to any other Order except to that of the Carthusians. Pope Clement VIII in 1592 and 1600 again confirmed this Order, with additional privileges. Indeed the very end of this institution engaged all men to favour it; especially those who considered how many thousands die, even in the midst of priests, without sufficient help in preparing themselves for that dreadful hour which decides their eternity; what superficial confessions, what neglect in acts of contrition, charity, restitution, and other essential duties, are often to be feared; which grievous evils might be frequently remedied by the assiduity of well qualified ministers.
Among many abuses and dangerous evils which the zeal of Saint Camillus prevented, his attention to every circumstance relating to the care of dying persons soon made him discover that in hospitals many are buried alive, of which Cicatello relates several examples, particularly of one buried in a vault, who was found walking about in it when the next corpse was brought to be there interred. Hence the saint ordered his religious to continue the prayers for souls yet in their agony for a quarter of an hour after they seem to have drawn their last breath, and not to suffer their faces to be covered so soon as is usual, by which means those who are not dead are stifled. This precaution is most necessary in cases of drowning, apoplexies, and such accidents and distempers which arise from mere obstructions or some sudden revolution of humours. Saint Camillus showed still a far greater solicitude to provide all comfort and assistance for the souls of those who are sick, suggesting frequent short pathetic aspirations, showing them a crucifix, examining their past confessions and present dispositions, and making them exhortations with such unction and fervour that his voice seemed like a shrill trumpet, and pierced the hearts of all who heard him. He encouraged his disciples to these duties with words of fire. He did not love to hear any thing spoken unless divine charity made part of the subject; and if he heard a sermon in which it was not mentioned, he would call the discourse a gold ring without a stone.
He was himself afflicted with many corporal infirmities, as a sore in his leg for forty-six years; a rupture for thirty-eight years which he got by serving the sick; two callous sores in the sole of one of his feet, which gave him great pain; violent nephritic colics, and for a long time before he died, a loss of appetite. Under this complication of diseases he would not suffer any one to wait on him, but sent all his brethren to serve poor sick persons. When he was not able to stand he would creep out of his bed, even in the night, by the sides of the beds, and crawl from one patient to another to exhort them to acts of virtue, and see if they wanted anything. He slept very little, spending greater part of the night in prayer and in serving the sick. He used often to repeat with Saint Francis: “So great is the happiness which I hope for, that all pain and suffering is a pleasure.” His friars are not obliged to recite the church office unless they are in holy Orders; but confess and communicate every Sunday and great holiday, have every day one hour’s meditation, hear mass, and say the litany, beads, and other devotions. The holy founder was most scrupulously exact in every word and ceremony of the holy mass, and of the divine office. He despised himself to a degree that astonished all who knew him. He laid down the generalship in 1607, that he might be more at leisure to serve the poor. He founded religious houses at Bologna, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Ferrara, Messina, Palermo, Mantua, Viterbo, Bocchiano, Theate, Burgonono, Sinuessa, and other places. He had sent several of his friars into Hungary, and to all other places which in his time were afflicted with the plague. When Nola was visited with that calamity in 1600, the bishop constituted Camillus his vicar general, and it is incredible what succours the sick received from him and his companions, of whom five died of that distemper. God testified his approbation of the saint’s zeal by the spirit of prophecy and the gift of miracles, on several occasions, and by many heavenly communications and favours.
He assisted at the fifth general chapter of his Order in Rome, in 1613, and after it, with the new general, visited the houses in Lombardy, giving them his last exhortations, which were every where received with tears. At Genoa he was extremely ill, but being a little better, duke Doria Tursi sent him in his rich galley to Civita Vecchia, whence he was conveyed in a litter to Rome. He recovered so as to be able to finish the visitation of his hospitals, but soon relapsed, and his life was despaired of by the physicians. Hearing this he said: I rejoice in what hath been told me: We shall go into the house of the Lord. He received the viaticum from the hands of Cardinal Ginnasio, protector of his Order, and said with many tears: “O Lord, I confess I am the most wretched of sinners, most undeserving of thy favour; but save me by thy infinite goodness. My hope is placed in thy divine mercy through thy precious blood.” Though he had lived in the greatest purity of conscience ever since his conversion, he had been accustomed to go every day to confession with great compunction and many tears. When he received the extreme-unction he made a moving exhortation to his religious brethren, and having foretold that he should die that evening, he expired on the 14th of July, 1614, being sixty-five years, one month, and twenty days old. He was buried near the high altar in Saint Mary Magdalen’s church; but upon the miracles which were authentically approved, his remains were taken up and laid under the altar; they were enshrined after he was beatified in 1742, and in 1746 he was solemnly canonized by Benedict XIV. See the life of Saint Camillus by Cicatello his disciple, and the acts of his canonization with those of Saints Fidelis of Sigmaringa, Peter Regalati, Joseph of Leonissa, and Saint Catharine de Ricci, printed at Rome in 1749.
- Father Alban Butler. “Saint Camillus de Lellis, Confessor”. , 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 12 July 2013. Web. 28 December 2014. <>