St. Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614) was a sinner transformed into a saint. Camillus’ father was a soldier and adventurer who would hire himself out to fight for whoever would pay him. He was a spendthrift and a gambler who set a bad example for Camillus.
Camillus was a tall but unattractive young man. He was lazy, clumsy, hot-tempered, and obstinate. Camillus’ mother died when he was 12 years old. Camillus didn’t do well in school, and was addicted to gambling. At 17, this six-and-a-half-foot giant quit school, joined his father, and enlisted as a soldier. Both father and son became professional soldiers and gamblers. They would go from army to army and fight for whoever would pay them.
One day, the father and son were travelling to join the army in Venice which was preparing to fight the Turks. Both of them fell ill, and the father was dying. On his deathbed, he expressed sorrow for his past sins and received the last sacraments with fervour before he died.
The death and repentance of his father had sobering effects on Camillus, and he decided to become a Franciscan. During his lifetime, Camillus tried to join the Franciscans a few times, but each time he was sent away because of a leg wound.
Soon after his first attempt at joining the Franciscans, Camillus fell back into the habit of gambling. He wandered from place to place, and he finally applied at the hospital of S. Giacomo in Rome, hoping to obtain a cure for his wound. Since he had no money, he offered himself as a servant in the place. Unfortunately, beside work, he had too many idle hours, and he fell once again into gambling, which eventually caused him to be dismissed for card-playing.
For two years (from 19 to 21), Camillus fought against the Turks in the armies of Venice. However, gambling continued to be his besetting sin. He seems to have been dismissed due to a gambling quarrel. He then joined the army of Spain. Due to a storm, the company which Camillus belonged to was disbanded, and the homeless Camillus lost everything in the gambling dens. Camillus then went from place to place with another gambler. They made gambling their trade, turning to begging when they had lost everything.
One morning, the two men were begging in Manfredonia, Italy, when a wealthy man spoke to Camillus and urged him to work. Camillus said he was a disbanded soldier and now no one would employ him. At the time the wealthy man was building a monastery outside the town, so he sent Camillus with a note of instruction that he should be given employment on the building.
His companion did his best to dissuade him. At first Camillus gave in, and he left Manfredonia with his companion for the next town. But on the road there came to Camillus a great grace.
Archbishop Alban Goodier, author of the book Saints for Sinners, wrote: “He had felt the goodwill of the man who had offered him work; thought of the Franciscan monastery brought back to him memories of his early efforts to amend, five or six years before; it seemed to him that here was an opportunity which should not be missed, and which might never occur again. With a mighty effort, the greatest he ever made in all his life, he shook himself free. To the surprise of his companion he suddenly turned round and began to run back to Manfredonia as fast as his legs would carry him. Next morning, he found himself enrolled among the labourers on the monastery building.”
Doing humble works was not easy for Camillus, but he persisted. He knew that in order not to fall back to his former sins, he must keep himself occupied. The months of humble work were the turning point of his life.
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