Yesterday as today: the camillians in the front line

By Luciana Mellone

Since the year 1586, when the ‘company of good men’ obtained the approval of Pope Sixtus V,  and 1591 when Pope Gregory XIV conferred the status of an Order on it with the name of ‘Order of the Ministers of the Sick’,  the Ministers of the Sick, the Camillians, have always directed their attention to the world of health by dedicating themselves to the sick and the suffering.

This noble undertaking is not only upheld by the Constitution itself of the Order: ‘Our Institute…has, as its purpose, the complete service of the sick in the totality of their being…Therefore we are prepared to undertake every kind of service, in the health care world for the building up of the Kingdom and the advancement of the people of God’ (C, 43). It is also, and above all else, felt in the depths of the soul and the heart of every member of the Order.

In consecrating their lives to the sick, many Camillans have lost their own lives in the epidemics and disasters that have followed one another down the centuries.

During the epoch when St. Camillus was at work, plagues and epidemics, with consequent famines, were very frequent. In addition, hunger, wars and natural disasters were not absent, either in Italy or in other countries of present-day Europe.

      In 1590, in addition to typhus and the fevers of plagues, the city of Rome was struck by a  consequent major famine in which over 60,000 people lost their lives because of hunger and cold. Camillus and his confreres provided aid by feeding and clothing the population.

In response to a request made by Pope Clement VII, Camillus sent religious to Hungary to care for sick and wounded soldiers and on the occasion of the flooding caused by the Tiber bursting its banks in Rome, Camillus worked day and night to save the patients of the Hospital of the Holy Spirit.

During the course of the seventeenth century there were many outbreaks of plague in Italy. We may here remember the bubonic plague which broke out in Palermo in 1624, followed by the same plague that was brought by the French and imperial troops that had come down into the peninsula because of the war of succession over the Dukedom of Mantua. The plague reached areas in the north and centre of Italy. The first city to be struck was Mantua itself and its fifty thousand inhabitants were reduced to seven thousand. Milan and Bologna were also struck and this latter city had 13,398 victims of the plague out of a population of 61,559 inhabitants in the urban city alone. Many other cities were afflicted by the plague: Ferrara, Florence, Borgonovo, Mondovì, Occimiano, Rome. Again there were many Camillians who cared for the plague-stricken unceasingly. They were entrusted with the ‘purging’ of letters or disinfection, as we would say today, and both people and things that come from places suspected of having the plague were put in quarantine. People were closed up in their homes or special hospitals and could be approached only by those who were entrusted with caring for them, many of whom were Camillian religious. Many of these religious lost their lives when providing service not only in Italy but also in many parts of the world.

Down the centuries the dedication of Camillian religious has not declined and, albeit with different instruments more suited to the times, they have continued their work, for example with those suffering from leprosy in China, Thailand, the Philippines, Africa and Brazil, or with patients with tuberculosis, or with people with HIV/AIDS and Ebola. Their care was also provided during the wars of recent centuries.

To deal with natural disasters and socio-health-care emergencies, CADIS, the ‘Camillian Disaster Service International (CADIS) Foundation’, was created. This organisation is officially registered with the Italian government and was a result of the transformation of the former Camillian Task Force which was created at the time of the General Chapter of 1995. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, typhoons and epidemics, but also droughts, have been the principal theatre of operations for the work of the Camillians in Africa, Asia, America and Europe.

Today, this pandemic is compared to a war, but in a war, whatever the case, you know who your ‘enemy’ is and whom you have to protect yourself against. In this war, with this pandemic, the enemy is invisible, it is underhand, and if it gets you it takes away your breathing: your breathing, that precious thing that only now we see as vital. During an epoch when we are distracted by the frenetic passing of time, because we are taken up by a thousand thoughts and problems that seem to us to be insoluble but which we discover to be ironically superficial. That time that we think we cannot waste by spending time with our loved ones, with our elderly people, thinking that this is a waste of precious time that should be dedicated to our commitments, which can in fact be easily postponed. At a time when we are no longer used to making gestures of affection, a caress or a smile or a hug, but where competition, overwhelming our neighbour in order to make our own individual voices heard in an overbearing way above those of other people, prevail; where arrogance has taken the place of kindness, of understanding and of compassion. Well this time has stopped and this because of an miniscule and invisible virus called the coronavirus. Silence has fallen on us, the fear of an invisible enemy that forces all of us, or at least most of us, to open our eyes, to look beyond the mist, and open our eyes towards a blue and clear sky, a sky that all of us can see nowadays, when the traffic has stopped, when aeroplanes no longer fly over the continents of the world to transport an increasing number of people from one place to another on the planet, people searching for something that amazes them, new adventures, new opportunities, but always carrying in their luggage a feeling of loneliness and emptiness. And yet man can recover by looking into the depths of his own DNA for those simple feelings that all of us have written into our genes. Simple feelings: nearness, compassion, understanding, closeness, cooperation, love, which are demonstrated through a look, a smile, a caress, a hug. These are all things that today, in this forced isolation, seem to us impossible to engage in…and when will be able to engage in them again?

For the Camillians, the commitment and dedication remain the same; they are the same as those taught by their Founder.  They have not neglected the essential values that we are presently mourning and today, as then, the Camillians are called once again to be in the front line at the side of sick people during this terrible pandemic that has rapidly invaded the whole world, often accompanying people to their deaths at a time when they were deprived of the possibility of the comfort and the nearness of their family relatives.