Mercy Towards the Sick: Recounting Our Own History to Keep Our Identity Alive

IMG_3336In his apostolic letter addressed to all consecrated people on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life (28 November 2014, Pope Francis invited us to address our history and our memory and to cultivate a deep sense of gratitude. ‘During this Year, it would be appropriate for each charismatic family to reflect on its origins and history, in order to thank God who grants the Church a variety of gifts which embellish her and equip her for every good work (cf. Lumen Gentium, 12). Recounting our history is essential for preserving our identity, for strengthening our unity as a family and our common sense of belonging. More than an exercise in archaeology or the cultivation of mere nostalgia, it calls for following in the footsteps of past generations in order to grasp the high ideals, and the vision and values which inspired them, beginning with the founders and foundresses and the first communities. In this way we come to see how the charism has been lived over the years, the creativity it has sparked, the difficulties it encountered and the concrete ways those difficulties were surmounted. We may also encounter cases of inconsistency, the result of human weakness and even at times a neglect of some essential aspects of the charism. Yet everything proves instructive and, taken as a whole, acts as a summons to conversion. To tell our story is to praise God and to thank him for all his gifts’.

In his Bull of Indiction of the Holy Year of Mercy (Misericordiae Vultus, n. 15), on the other hand, he invited us to reflect in a completely special way on ‘the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead…We cannot escape the Lord’s words to us, and they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged: whether we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-45). In each of these “little ones,” Christ himself is present. His flesh becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled…to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us’.

It is in this context of the life of the Church – namely the Year of Consecrated Life and the Jubilee of Mercy – that on Friday 11 December 2015, at our generalate house which stewards the incandescent historical memory of our Founder St. Camillus de Lellis and the still intact freshness of his original insight, that the launch took place of the last two volumes published in the series of historical research on the oldest Camillian Provinces. This was a further opportunity to understand how over time the continuity of an insight that was truly ahead of its time developed: the charism of the mercy of God towards sick people, understood in their holistic dimension (body, soul, spirit, relationships, feelings…).

The restrictions imposed by human, character, community and social limitations (sins in Christian terms) have at times obfuscated this objective…but when reading these pages one fact always emerges in a forceful way: the original charism always wins and always opens new pages!


  1. Storia dell’Ordine di San Camillo. La Provincia Piemontese (‘A History of the Order of St. Camillus. The Province of Piedmont’), edited by Prof. Walter Crivellin. The Province of Piedmont was founded in 1835 but inherited an important legacy that went directly back to St. Camillus who had chosen Genoa as the reference point for the fourth house of the Order after Rome, Naples and Milan (the ‘Holy Cross’ House of Genoa where the Genoese Camillian community was involved in complete service for the patients of the Pammatone Hospital).
  2. Storia dell’Ordine di San Camillo. La Provincia Siculo-Napoletana (‘A History of the Camillian Order. The Province of Sicily and Naples’), edited by Prof. Sabina Andreoni, Prof. Massimo Carlo Giannini and Prof. Giovanni Pizzorusso. The house of Naples is even more illustrious: it was the second foundation that St. Camillus wanted, being established in October 1588, and from the outset it had religious of great intelligence and acclaimed holiness. One need only cite Fr. Biagio Oppertis (the first companion and biographer of St. Camillus, Fr. Sanzio Cicatelli, was a Neapolitan…).

This launch was a valuable opportunity to address the contents of the book produced for us by these historians but also, and above all else, it was a chance to interact with them.

piemonteThis is the latest stage of a project that began some years ago and was entrusted by the General Consulta to a group of scholars and researchers: a project intended fill a gap in historical knowledge about the life of our Order, that is to say a systematic analysis of the foundation and development of the individual Provinces and the way in which they have interpreted our charism over time.

This study was conceived of as an integral part of the project for the reorganisation of the general archives, a subject dear to the heart of the then Superior General, Fr. Angelo Brusco, who in the Status Ordinis wrote as follows: ‘The work for the updating of the general archives has not failed to produce good results. The situation, however, is still far from being satisfactory. Because we have not been able to find a permanent archivist, we have had to be content with partial solutions. I associate the incompleteness of the history of the Order with the inadequate solutions achieved as regards the archives’.

After a few years this was echoed by another Superior General, Fr. Frank Monks: ‘Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by the number of citizens of the United States of America who go back to Ireland to look for traces of their roots. I remember their joy when discovering the name of their grandfather or great-grandfather in the church registers of their villages. Their joy was contagious. This taught me how important it is for all of us to be aware of our origins if we really want to appreciate the set of values that guide us and if we want to plan the direction towards which we want to go. The Second Vatican Council invited all religious to return to their original sources and to rediscover the spirit of their founders. This would have been almost an impossible task for Camillians if there had not been people who had cared and worked hard to preserve the documentation that goes back to the beginning of our foundation.

We have a glorious history that we can be proud of, even though some shadows are not lacking. I am aware of the great debt that we have towards our ancestors because without their vision and without their work to preserve all our ancient material, we would have been faced with an impossible task’ (From the ‘Introduzione’ to Archivio dei Camilliani: studi e problemi”, edited by J. Ickx, G. Pizzorusso, and E.A. Talamo, Rubbettino, 2006).

Looking forward to this launch, some of the minutes of the preparatory meetings were revisited, and in particular those of 19 September 2015.

The provocations offered by Fr. Frank Monks and Fr. Francisco Alvarez helped to give to the researchers who had been commissioned a clear idea of the extent of the role of the Camillians in the world. This gave new lymph and energy looking forward to the work that had to be begun. The profound motivation of St. Camillus and his followers was illumined: the charism of the Founder and the foundation is the mainspring around which the experience of Camillian consecrated life revolves. Mercy seems to be a key word by which to assess the concrete implementations of our charism in history. It tells us about the spirit in which every activity has been formed.

The papers also helped to highlight some of the subjects that are of interest: the relationship between fathers and brothers, for example, within the context of charismatic equality; the institutional relations between the Order and the civil and ecclesial authorities; and the fourth vow, ‘service to the sick even at risk to one’s own life,) as a constituent element of Camillian consecrated life.

Some criteria for historical research were established. Within the context of the questions and issues cited above, that research must address the central issue of the continuity of the inspiration and work of Camillus amongst his followers. To this end the history and the bringing together of the Constitutions of the Order – an analysis of the spirit of specific epoch and how religious perceive themselves – appears to be a useful comparative study.

Historical research is not a succession of facts narrated in the style of a chronicle but, rather, a description of the mutual influences at work between the Order and the world in which it has lived. The subject of mercy can emerge as a hermeneutical key.

A historian must seek to rediscover within the events the constituent dimensions of the Order: its charismatic dimension, community involvement and contemporaneous attention paid to the spiritual and the corporeal (the unity of the spirit and the body).

siculaSuch is the work that has been carried out so far, with an attempt being made to be as faithful as possible to the original approach. The covers chosen for the volumes which have been published so far, themselves express the focal centre of the inspiration, the charism, the spirituality and the praxis of the Camillians: St. Camillus and the strong embrace – hear, soul, look, hand – for people who are frail and weak!

And what about the future? There is no lack of dreams!…Our Order, our religious Provinces, want to continue to make the fire of our charism interact with the age, challenging the very needs of history: contemporary history, missionary expansion, the way in which the Second Vatican Council was received, the radical revision of our Constitution, the developments of modern anthropology, the modern and post-modern perception of suffering and illness, globalised relations, and the tensions between the North and the South of the world…are some of the stages that still deserve to be suitably explored!