Saint Camillus and the Camillians

By Fr. Efisio Locci

A premise

The community in Rome made a spiritual retreat in the month of July in preparation for the Feast of St. Camillus. Afterwards, I got the idea of writing a small letter to St. Camillus and several confreres solicited me asking for explanations and clarifications. The affliction in the discourses of several confreres is evidently heavy (almost … we are old … there are no vocations …) as for the disciples of Emmaus (we believed …), but Christ is truly risen!

My intention is to reread the writings of St. Camillus to identify his thought that can help us find new hope. We must always remember that the first rule of religious renewal is “follow Christ” and the second is “follow the founder” (PC 2b). Other important notes from the Church are: ‘The updating of Institutes depends greatly on the education of members’ (Cf. PC 18), and ‘the missionary spirit should be preserved in the institutes’ (Cf. PC 20).

Rereading the thought of Camillus in his writings, helps us solve our problems, because his thought is more modern than ours. If we look at the history of the Order we find moments in which difficulties were overcome by drawing inspiration from the original thought of Camillus and the teaching of the Church. He wanted the Order to fly high like an eagle, but perhaps we cut off one of its wings. Camillus’ constant discussions and advocacy of “complete service”, “body and soul” was his concern until his deathbed. This is the real centre of the problems. A few examples: the recuperation of the “complete service” that took place at the clinic and the school in Cremona; the new project of the Brazilian Province; the approach to formation, including professional formation in the provinces of Burkina Faso and Benin; the missionary enthusiasm of the last century…. The essential thing is that the plans for renewal have only one direction: “To live only for God” and only one motivation: “for His greater glory”. Without this nothing can exist, everything is insignificant. I do not believe at all that the recuperation of “complete service” is valid only in mission countries. In acculturated countries, one can find room for witness only with professionalism and seriousness of preparation in the field of healthcare. Of course, holiness is always valid.

The rules of the Church for the renewal of religious life   

My impression is that today there is a lot of pessimism and that we are struggling to rediscover the revolutionary force of our charism. There is a vein of discouragement in our discourses due to the difficulty of solving many problems: the aging of the largest Italian province, which represented about half of the Order; the real diminishing of the Order in Europe; the various difficulties in different parts of the world; the operational weakening of the leadership.

The causes vary from one country to another, and no single diagnosis can be made. The phenomenon of aging concerns the whole of the Old Continent (Europe), but in particular, Italy, which has the lowest natality. The difficulties of religious life, however, cannot be reduced only to sociological, demographic, political, philosophical or theological problems, although they are certainly not to be underestimated.  Throughout the history of the Church, religious life has always suffered various difficulties, but it has also found the strength to overcome them, not becoming discouraged but always knowing how to begin again. Let us remember that in the past the difficulties were greater than they are today.

The celebration of the third centenary of the Order registered some hundreds of Camillian religious, the fourth centenary registered about 1200 Camillians. The Church asks us to renew ourselves in order to be effective witnesses of the Gospel through some essential guidelines: “following Christ set forth in the Gospel”; “rediscover the spirit and purpose of the Founders”; “participate in the life of the Church”; know the “conditions of the times and of human beings”; “spiritual renewal”; “involvement of all the members of the Institute” (PC 2).

Other rules for the renewal of religious life are: “Let them (the religious) feel that they are bound by the common law of labour … taking into account the conditions of each place” (PC 13). “You will eat from the fruit of your toil”, which was seen as a punishment, today is the source of man’s dignity and of his creative capacity which brings him closer to the Creator. The Council reminds us: The updating of Institutes depends greatly on the formation of their members; “formation includes religious and apostolic formation, joined with instruction in arts and science directed toward obtaining appropriate degrees; Superiors, insofar as they are able, should provide (religious) with suitable opportunities, aids and time for formation” (Cf. PC 18). Moreover, “the missionary spirit should be fully preserved in religious Institutes” (PC 20).

We can summarize the commitments and the rules for renewal: the word of the Gospel, the return to the spirit of the founder, the preparation of religious and the missionary spirit. These are the indications that come to us from the Council which we cannot forget, because they are also the response of the Church to the problems of religious life. The rest is of the evil one. In the history of the Camillian Order there is no tradition of great regard for studies in general and for professional studies in particular; indeed, there is a certain contrary and suspicious attitude. The curious thing is that these are the same attitudes that St. Camillus had before he had the inspiration from God. He overcame every difficulty with this: “the more learned the Ministers of the Infirm are, the more they will understand what a precious pearl they have in their hands, and the more they will value it, the more they will hold it dear” (Writings, p.96).

No one should underestimate the difficulties we experience, but we must always believe that we have the possibility to overcome them as our predecessors did, because, Jesus says, “I will always be with you.”

Rereading the thought of Camillus – the “complete service” 

Let’s try to search for Camillus’ thought, in order to find a path and a help in our difficulties. It seems to me quite common the thought that today we live a phase of great spiritual and human suffering with the prospect of continuous reshaping of our presence in the Church and in the world, concretely due to the lack of vocations, to the aging, to the lack of roles and prospects, in Europe as well as in the whole world. The difficulties are so pressing that we are disoriented. For many years we have failed to present ourselves attractive and meaningful to our contemporaries; we find no followers. We must not delude ourselves thinking that we can solve our problems by bringing in religious from the ‘missions’. We must find the solution in our own countries.

Personally, I do not believe that our charism is out of date, that God is absent, that we are on the road to continual downsizing and decline in our regions. I find consoling and liberating the reading of the encyclical of Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas est. I find in it the essentiality of faith, the necessity and security of the things of God, charity or helpfulness as the cornerstone of humanity, the church and the Order, an important and ever-present part of building the Kingdom of God. Diakonia is one of the constitutive aspects of the Church. The charism of the Order is just that: Diakonia to humanity in the world of health. “As the years went by and the Church spread further afield, the exercise of charity became established as one of her essential activities, along with the administration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the Word” (DCE, 22). The expression of the Church and its essence is to exercise this threefold role: proclaiming the Word, administering the Sacraments, and exercising Diakonia. “The Church can never be exempted from practising charity as an organized activity of believers, … there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary” (DCE, 29). The purpose of the Diakonia of Charity is “a true humanism, which acknowledges that man is made in the image of God and wants to help him to live in a way consonant with that dignity” (DCE, 30).  It is a matter of the Church’s mission, which she must exercise with respect for the law.

I believe that in these words of the Pope there are operative lines of our role in the world and the proclamation of the inexhaustible modernity of our charism. Certainly, we have to update our preparation, the modalities of our work, reawaken the strength of our faith, but we must never lose sight of the perpetuity of our charism, which has at its centre human being, God’s masterpiece, in all his or her complexity of soul and body. This is the genius and the extraordinary modernity of Camillus’ vision. He wanted the Order to fly high, like an eagle, with two wings (corporal and spiritual service). No eagle flies with a broken wing.

We all know the heated discussions about the tremendous problem of “complete service to the sick” in Camillus’ life. Reading Sannazzaro’s book, The First Five Chapters of the Order, one can see how profound the issue is. It seems that incommunicability reigned between the religious and the Founder. They could no longer understand each other. This tells us the extraordinary importance that “complete service” had in Camillus’ mind. Today it makes us understand the originality and modernity of the idea of the Order. Only Superna disposizione, the Bull by Clement VIII, on December 29, 1600, is able to calm down a little our minds and establish a generally acceptable line. Camillus and his sons accepted the words of the Pope on the “corporal and spiritual” service. Still some tensions continued.

Fr. Spogli’s research on the fourth vow highlighted the importance of “corporal service” for the vitality of our Order, because it is characterized precisely in the complete service to the sick, especially during plagues. By the observance of the fourth vow the Order lives, without languishing.

With the passing of the years, for various reasons internal and external to the Order, the “corporal” service increasingly faded, in favour of an almost exclusive spiritual service, although much impoverished over time. The Order has had several moments in history when it was extremely reduced in number of religious.  The celebration of the 3rd centenary marked a significant reduction. The recovery occurred with the foundation and growth of the Lombardy-Venetia Province which sought renewal through “complete service”.

The writings of St. Camillus reveal his great vision of service to the sick. At the basis of Camillus’ vision is the mystical intuition of God that he had in his conversion and the decision to devote himself completely to “God alone”. The experience of personal suffering (wounded healer) especially his “wound”, helped him to make a spiritual reading of human suffering, making him understand the depth of the words of the gospel: what you did to a sick person “you did to me”. This is the fundamental stone on which stands the whole spirituality of Camillus. The experience of administration at St. James Hospital in Rome was the concrete opportunity to found a “Company of good men” who would serve the sick with the attention of a mother for her sick child. The service to the sick was especially a corporal service that later became also a spiritual service, hence the complete service. In the practice and writings of Camillus we find how important was the complete service. We recall some examples to understand the importance of “complete service” for Camillus:

  • Agreement with the Hospital in Ferrara, October 7, 1602: “For the service to the sick … the Order will give nine religious, namely, two priests and seven brothers. They will serve the sick and care for them spiritually and corporally” (Sommaruga, Writings of St. Camillus, p. 138). Later Camillus writes, “We do not intend for this reason (a quarrel) to diminish at all our corporal and spiritual service to the poor … for the glory of God” (Writings, p. 141).
  • The administrators of the Hospital in Genoa wanted to change the agreement and accept only spiritual assistance, for economic reasons. In a letter dated March 18, 1605, Camillus refused the change because: “Superna Disposizione, the Bull by Clement VIII, prohibits the acceptance of spiritual assistance without corporal assistance in hospitals.”
  • For the Hospital of Mantua, the General Fr. Opertis agreed to reduce our presence in the hospital to spiritual service alone. On July 4, 1609 Camillus wrote to the Duke and begged him “not to accept that we leave the assistance we have provided so far both to souls and bodies” (Writings, p. 153).
  • The Letter Testament, which reflects Camillus’ most important concerns: “I declare that my will is … In addition, I intend that spiritual assistance alone should never be taken care of without corporal assistance” (Writings, p 215).
  • Clement VIII’s Bull Superna disposizione also states: “The ‘reason’ of our institute, founded in doing the works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual, is principally in those things which belong to the sick in hospitals, in prisons, and in private homes.”
  • “…our fathers and brothers are in every way obliged and bound to maintain the essence of their institute, which consists in serving the sick spiritually and corporately” (Kremer, Bullarium, p. 79-80).  The Bull establishes, by way of example, what corporal care consists of. It is those services that nurses do today, that is, caring for the ‘person’ of the sick, while leaving out other works that do not directly concern the person.”

Camillus’ thoughts on studies/formation

History hands down to us the image of a boy who did not like books, of an illiterate man, who had to study when he grew up among boys. “You’ve come late”, his classmates used to scoff at him. He learned only the essential things, to be able to become a priest and be able to found the Order. He was a man “without letters” but he did not lack intelligence and intuition, indeed he was a man of great visions, strong feelings, as well as an iron will. This is demonstrated by everything he did, living with intensity the two lives, the one before his conversion and the one after. He was a man of strong personality, of a prophetic vision of how to assist the sick, of a sensitivity and attention for which he is still a master today. The emphasis on “complete service” to the sick is a formidable intuition that denotes his extreme modernity of vision of the sick and the conception of care.

There are two ways of thinking in Camillus on the subject of study, which Fr. Vendrame calls Camillus’ fifth conversion. The first was prior to the “inspiration of God” in which he appeared doubtful, suspicious, uncertain and terribly severe on the subject. The second was the one consequent to the “inspiration” that came during a meditation. Camillus was afraid that the religious “engulfed” in their studies would forget to serve the sick. This was Camillus’ torment in fact: “shortly before (the inspiration) he had punished a professed member in Rome with forty days in shackles on bread and water because he had only asked to be put to study … from this time on (after the inspiration), which was at the end of August 1594: “He began to study freely” (Vendrame, p. 132).

The fact of Camillus’ change of thought is recounted as follows. During a journey from Novara to Magenta, to go to Milan (Camillus and Michele Saluzzo coming from Genoa, Cesare Bonino and Paolo Cherubino coming from Turin) while meditating “Camillus had the new intelligence on studies.”  The account by Vendrame (edited by Sannazzaro, pp. 130-132) was confirmed by witnesses, (note on p. 336), M. Vanti, Writings of St. Camillus, pp. 152,156; and Sommaruga, Writings of St. Camillus, pp.95-96, which I quote:

“I want to recount what has happened to me by the grace of God during prayer, especially as I believe in the inspiration from the Lord. So, I say that this morning, while I was traveling, I came to understand in a perfect way that in our Order studies of all kinds are not only convenient but necessary: studies of philosophy and theology, as well as preaching and confessions in church, since the Order aims to help our neighbour. For this service, I clearly recognize that men learned in every science are necessary.”

“Thus, my brothers, I may die this night, but I know clearly now that this is the will of God: that our Order should also turn to studies … not as an end in itself but as a necessary means to achieve our end perfectly. I call you to be witnesses of this will of mine, so that you may communicate it to the whole Order.”

Bonino at the trial in Naples reiterates: “He (Fr. Camillus) told me that God had inspired him … of the best way to help his neighbour … that my Religion had every kind of studies, and sciences … that were more necessary to us than to the Jesuit Fathers” (Vanti, p. 336). The historian Fr. Lenzi affirms that after the prayer Camillus said: “Nostram Religionem oportere doctissimos habere viros” (Our religion ought to have learned men) (Vendrame, note on p. 336).

Rereading these pages, it is not easy to understand the mentality against studies that developed in the Order. I believe that, at the time of Camillus, after having begun to send the religious to study (Vendrame, p. 132), they realized that they could not support them both because of the cost of studies (ours was a poverty unimaginable to us) and because of the continuous requests for religious to serve in the hospital. Certainly, studies and professional preparation are fundamental for exercising the health care ministry, for healing body and soul. No one should be afraid to prepare Religious with studies. St. Camillus overcame these fears: “The more learned the Ministers of the Infirm are, the more they will understand what a precious pearl they have in their hands, and, the more they will value it, the more they will hold it dear.” (Writings, p. 96).

Some pathways for Camillian renewal

While reading the writings on this topic, I came across a book by Fr. Calisto Vendrame, Being Religious Today. I take the paths of renewal from him, as a person authoritative for culture and vision.

  • “In order to solve problems, a conversion of mentality is necessary, as well as a conversion of heart. (…) that is, conforming our way of seeing with that of Christ, of the Gospel and of the Church that pronounced itself so strongly in Vatican II, putting charity (as the Bible does) above everything and before everything else” (p. 35).
  • “Our charism is expressed and implemented in works of mercy towards the sick, assuming every service in the world of health. (…) for this reason… there will be Camillian nurses, hospital chaplains, doctors, psychologists, administrators, experts in the pastoral care of health, in sacred scripture, in moral theology, anthropology, in a word, in all the human sciences and theology which in some way help to serve the sick better and to create around them, in the vast world of health care, a human and Christian climate” (p. 308).
  • “It is at the provincial level that the orientations of the central government are actualized and the life and activities of the Institute are expressed in a concrete and decisive form. It is the province that carries out or covers up everything that comes from the top or the bottom” (p. 143).
  • Perhaps, in order to help solve the problems, it is necessary to make more explicit the role and the fundamental obligation of animation that the Consulta has for the different sectors of the Order, so that the Institute’s activities of growth are not covered up, and the general decisions made are implemented.

Rome, September 2021