St. Camillus De Lellis, a Gambling Addict Who Became a Saint

SAINTS & ART: St. Camillus turned from gambling when he reckoned with what mattered (and didn’t matter) in life.

Retablo, “St. Camillus de Lellis”
Retablo, “St. Camillus de Lellis” (photo: Public Domain)

It’s said that sinners have a past, but saints have a future. Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614) had a past. Throughout much of his life, he was afflicted with an addiction to gambling, which even reduced him to destitution. It was a vice into which he repeatedly fell. But it was also a vice that, by the grace of God, he overcame.

The son of a soldier, Camillus eventually found his way to a military career of his own. He picked up his gambling vice in the military. A Franciscan friar tried to correct his path and Camillus sought admission to that order, but was refused. He made his way to Rome where he sought work in a hospital for incurables. It was not wholly benevolent — he hoped to be cured of abscesses in his feet. Unlike his gambling, the abscesses would plague him until his death. Indeed, his gambling and his quarrelsome disposition got him fired from the hospital, so he went back to soldiering. When his term of service ended, he went to work on a construction project for some Capuchins. This time, the guardian managed to turn his gambling around and, though he sought admission to the community, they refused him because of his feet problems.

Camillus went back to Rome and the hospital where he previously worked. He obtained temporary relief of his foot problems and, with a changed life, became a nurse and eventually director of that hospital. 

Hospitals of the 17th century, especially for the incurably sick, were staffed not by health care professionals but often by mercenaries and criminals performing what then was called “penance” — and what today we might call “community service.” Their commitment to their patients was, therefore, often doubtful. Camillus de Lellis — who knew both the military and sickness — turned that around. When he announced plans to create a religious order of infirmarians, however, he ran into opposition and so left that hospital to relocate to Rome’s “Hospital of the Holy Spirit” where his vision would eventually take root.

At 32 — unusually late, and halfway through his life (he died at 64) — he set on the path of priesthood. He also founded a new religious order, the “Fathers of a Good Death,” whose members devoted themselves to the plague-stricken and to assist those who were dying. The “Order of the Ministers of the Sick,” as its name came to be, elected Camillus its first superior, but eventually resigned to devote himself directly to the community’s ministry. The Camillian Order continues today, with male, female and lay branches. 

Camillus turned from gambling when he reckoned with what mattered — and didn’t — in life. What lasted and what vanished in life. 

Camillus had seen enough death in his life: as a soldier, among the destitute poor, among the sick. During a period of history when plagues and epidemics were common, Camillus’ “field hospital” opened itself to up close and personal contact with the stricken, the incurables and the dying. Alongside St. Joseph, St. Camillus de Lellis is also known as the patron of a good death. His priestly ministry providing the Last Sacraments — a last Confession, the Sacrament of the Sick and Viaticum, one’s final Communion and “food for the way” — led countless souls to their heavenly reward.

That ministry to the dying is the focus of today’s Saint in Art. The artwork comes from a 19th-century Mexican retablo. “Retablos” were devotional folk art in village churches in Mexico and today’s American Southwest that were first used to instruct converts in the Catholic faith and then to emphasize key points of that faith. Initially painted on wood, they were later called “laminas” because they were often — like this example — painted on tin.

This retablo depicts St. Camillus de Lellis hearing the last Confession of a dying man, as the title indicates: “St. Camillus de Lellis, Patron of Those in Their Last Agony.” The priests in black cassocks with red crosses are Camillians. They carry prayer books, the traditional holy candle lit by a deathbed and holy water to drive out the devils. 

The bands of words near each figure function something like balloons in cartoon strips, conveying what each person is saying. St. Camillus exhorts the dying man to affirm “I believe in God, I love God, I wait in God, I trust in God.” The dying man, his gaze fixed on the cross above his deathbed, acknowledges his guilt — “It weighs me in the soul of the offended.” 

The spiritual drama of man’s exit from this world is depicted by the angels and devils present in the sick room. The demons, half person, half bestial, are in retreat, recognizing they have lost this soul. Six are already in hellfire, the lowest grasping a snake, and two are about to submerge themselves in infernal flames. Four flee the confessing man, one closing his ears to the words of absolution. Two devils head for the window, perhaps in search of some other soul to devour (1 Peter 5:8). 

An angel — his guardian angel? — stands at the dying man’s head. From above descends another angel with a green garland, the “crown of victory” signifying his salvation. The dying man has “fought a good fight, run the course, kept the faith. There is laid up for me a crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). 

The retablo is in the Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, from whom this commentary is also borrowed. 

In an antiseptic age, a saint like Camillus de Lellis might have been thought of as some relic from a long-gone time. The past two and a half years brought back the reality that the sicknesses, plagues and epidemics with which the world and Christians once struggled are only a virus away. A saint like Camillus de Lellis challenges 21st-century people to measure their humanity against the humanity of the 17th century: were protocols put in place at the start of COVID-19 — protocols that condemned many people to dying alone — truly humane? He also challenges the 21st century Church to examine the availability of its ministry to the sick and dying against the availability and generosity of the gambler saint.