The red cross is the universal symbol for health care. We see it on ambulances and on medical kits. Soldier-medics wear it on their helmets and, according to the Geneva Conventions, are therefore not to be attacked. A simple sign with a red cross and an arrow tells us where to go in a medical emergency.
The international medical use of this symbol has its origins in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), founded by Jean Henri Dunant in 1863, which adopted the cross as its emblem.
However, did you know that the ICRC was not the first health care organization to use a red cross? Nearly 300 years before the ICRC was founded, a reformed soldier-gambler with a busted leg put a red cross on his cloak and dedicated his life to the sick.
Let’s go back to 16th century Italy, where we meet Camillus de Lellis—a hopeless case early in his life. After a neglected childhood, he became a soldier with a quarrelsome temper, an incorrigible gambling habit, and a persistent leg wound that would cause him continual problems.
He went to the San Giacomo Hospital for Incurables in Rome for treatment on his leg and to work. But they kicked him out because of his argumentative nature. He went soldiering again, and gambling, and lost pretty much everything he had.
He took work at a Capuchin monastery, and a sermon he heard by the superior there moved him to repent and reform. He wanted to join them and was admitted as a lay brother, though he was later dismissed because of his still-wounded leg.
So he went back to San Giacomo. In all, he made multiple attempts to join the Franciscans, but God seemed to keep pulling him back to that hospital, for some divine purpose.
Camillus would soon find out what that purpose was.
Applying himself to the work of the hospital, Camillus worked so hard to take care of the sick that he became the superintendent, and formed the idea of a religious congregation specifically dedicated to the care of the sick. Under the guidance of St. Philip Neri, he studied for the priesthood and was ordained at age thirty-four.
Not long after, he founded the Order of the Ministers of the Infirm, or the Camillians. They wore a black robe—and a red cross.
Camillus’ congregation was absolutely dedicated to the physical and spiritual care of the sick and dying. They ministered joyfully even to the contagious that no one wanted to treat, such as the victims of the terrible plague outbreak that ravaged Rome in 1590. The Camillians gladly risked and sometimes sacrificed their own lives in the fulfillment of their duties.
Near the turn of the 17th century, the Camillians sent some of their members to assist wounded soldiers fighting in the Balkans—a pioneering step in the development of field ambulance units.
Camillus’ leg wound never really healed, and towards the end of his life, various ailments affected him so that he could hardly stand. Even then, he crawled out of bed to go minister to the sick. He went to his eternal reward on July 14th, 1614.
If you know a dedicated soul who cares for the sick even when they can hardly stand, show them you appreciate what they do. Our Olive Wood Pocket Cross—made in Bethlehem—fits nicely into the pocket of a white coat or scrubs, and offers tangible comfort and strength to those who work tirelessly for others. Available today at The Catholic Company!