A Short History of the Order

In the Footsteps of St. Camillus

In 1586 the ‘company of good men’ obtained the approval of Pope Sixtus V and in 1591 Pope Gregory XIV gave them the status of an Order with the name of ‘Order of the Ministers of the Sick’, a name chosen by the Founder to indicate that its members had to have Christ as their model: ‘I did not come to be served but to serve and give life’. Today the Ministers of the Sick are known throughout the world as the Camillians. The Order is made up of priests and brothers who as religious enjoy equal rights and have the same obligations.

The Order, as its Constitution observed, dedicated itself ‘before anything else to the practice of works of mercy towards the sick’ and ensured that ‘man is placed at the centre of attention of the world of health’. The members of the Order professed the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience and consecrated their lives ‘to service to the sick poor, including the plague-ridden, in their corporeal and spiritual needs, even at risk to their own life, having to do this out of sincere love for God’. ‘Our Institute…has, as its purpose, the complete service of the sick in the totality of their being’ and is ‘prepared to undertake every type of service in the health care world for the building up of the Kingdom and the advancement of man’  (C, n. 43). Faithful to this undertaking, hundreds of Camillians died serving people who had the plague.

Plagues and Epidemics

foto d'epoca camillianiIn Italy and in France plagues and epidemics were very frequent and called for special attention on the part of Camillus and his Order. When everyone fled, the Ministers of the Sick rushed to look after the sick, aware of the danger to their lives but equally ready to sacrifice their lives out of love for their sick brethren. Tens of them died, but Camillus was proud of the demonstration of charity by his sons: where the plague was, there, too, were the Camillians.

During the seventeenth century the cases of plague in various parts of Italy numbered over a dozen. In 1630 a plague devastated the north and centre of Italy. Over a hundred Camillians provided assistance to the plague-stricken and fifty-six religious died while providing them with total and generous service. In the years 1656-57 another plague in Italy led to the death of eighty-six Camillian religious who were looking after the plague-stricken: amongst the victims there were also three Provincial Superiors and the Superior General.

It was not only in Italy that the Camillians had to face up to the plague but also in Spain, Peru, Bolivia and in very many other parts of the world. Today the same attention is paid to people with leprosy in China, Thailand, the Philippines, Africa and Brazil; to those with tuberculosis, a disease that has killed millions of people since the beginning of the twentieth century; and to patients with HIV/AIDS.

For the Camillians, periods of plague and epidemics were ‘feast periods’, that is to say periods of unconditional dedication to the sick. Hitherto the Institute has always been faithful to this ideal, even though epidemics have not been so frequent and not as devastating as they were in the past.

Hunger, Wars and Disasters

camilliani e figlie di san camilloAt the time of Camillus, hunger, wars and natural disasters commanded the attention of the Order. In 1590 the city of Rome was struck by a grave famine in which over 60,000 people lost their lives. Camillus did everything he could to come to the help of the hungry. He fed more than four-hundred people as well as accumulating debts to buy clothes for people who were dying of cold.

In response to a request of the Pope, Camillus sent religious to Hungary to care for wounded or sick soldiers. In this way one can say that the Camillians were the precursors of the International Red Cross whose founder was inspired when watching the Camillians at work, helping the wounded in the very many wars in Europe during the nineteenth century.

On the occasion of the flooding caused by the River Tiber in Rome breaking its banks, Camillus worked day and night trying to bring the patients of the Hospital of the Holy Spirit to safety. Today the Order has its own organisation to respond to natural or man-made disasters: the Camillian Task Force.

‘I Would Like to Have a Hundred Hands’

suora camillianaGeographical expansion was followed by important innovations. Amongst these the birth of the Congregations for women: the Women Ministers of the Sick, the Daughters of St. Camillus, the Secular Institute of the Women Missionaries ‘Christ the Hope’, the Stella Maris Institute, the Camillian Missionary Handmaidens, the Handmaidens of the Incarnation, Kamillianische Schwestern, and the Lay Camillian Family. These are all institutions linked to the ideal of St. Camillus in intimate union with our Order. Where there are ‘Camillian men’, almost always there are also ‘Camillian women’.
The Camillian Laity

After the Second Vatican Council, almost all the male and female Congregations of consecrated life underwent a significant numerical decline. In the meantime the laity began to have more space in Church activities which up to that time had been held to be exclusively for consecrated men and women. In 1592 Camillus has already created a lay association to work with his religious in providing care to the sick. The involvement of lay people, therefore, is a living part of the ideal of Camillus and the Order. In Naples the first Camillians so involved the Church community that everyone – priests, religious and lay people – dedicated a part of their time and their possessions to caring for sick people in their families and in hospitals. ‘All of this is owed first and foremost to God and last to our Order’. It seemed that our religious constituted an impetus for this kind of care. The first biographer of St. Camillus states that ‘he had never read or heard it said that in any other city of Christendom had there been so many nobles who served the sick in hospitals as in Naples’.

Until the second half of the nineteenth century, the Order did not have any health-care works of its own. With its own works of health care and education, the Order opened up spaces for the laity. It is they who permit the functioning of these works. Camillian religious do not reach the figure of 1,200. The lay people who work in our works are near to 20,000.

The Lay Camillian Family

Side by side with the professionals, the Lay Camillian Family has arisen. It is made up of people who are committed to living the ideals and the spirit of St. Camillus in service to the sick. It has its  own statutes which were approved by the Holy See. Although linked to the Order and animated by the same spirit, it enjoys its own autonomy. It has thousands of members spread throughout the world. Many health-care professionals are a part of the LCF and enrich their professionalism with Camillian spirituality.

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