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Imitating St. Camillus: Beginning with Charity

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Jul 18, 2016

This post was originally published in July 2015.

July 18 is in the USA the Optional Memorial of St. Camillus de Lellis. On the General Roman Calendar his feast is July 14, but in the USA that is the Obligatory Memorial of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, so Camillus is transferred on the USA Liturgical Calendar. Despite St. Camillus' own incurable leg injury, he dedicated his life serving the sick, founding the Congregation of the Servants of the Sick (the Camillians or Fathers of a Good Death). At one point members of the Order took a special fourth vow (outside of the usual poverty, chastity and obedience) "to serve the sick, even with danger to one’s own life." St. Camillus is the patron of saint of the sick, hospitals, nurses and physicians and other health care workers. 

We are blessed with saints like Camillus who blazed the way with his example to help those sick and suffering, not just in body, but also in spirit. There are so many who hurt, and not just physically, but emotionally bearing losses and sadness. Right now I have many dear ones on my prayer list including an aunt who has been seriously ill for over a month, and spent the last two weeks in the hospital. I have a cousin whose baby has brain cancer, a brother slowly recovering from achilles surgery, and a friend who is by her daughter's bedside in the ICU after a car accident. I have other friends who are still hurting so deeply from the recent loss of a mother, a wife and an uncle. 

Last Thursday I had minor foot surgery. While everything is going well, recovery (and loss of driving for six weeks) affects the whole family. I must accept my limitations, and also ask and accept help. While I realize my inconveniences and suffering are minor compared to others, they are still limiting. 

What has really struck me the past few weeks through praying for others and going through my own limitations is how in very small and simple ways we can help others. St. Camillus didn't begin doing big things. His charity started small, and it was also one small act at a time. We can teach our children the basic tenets of charity one small work at a time.

Recently there was an online discussion where a parent was looking for tangible ways for her children to do social work or charity. She wanted it to be larger tangible ways to reach out to strangers and to the poor, sick and less fortunate. I disagree that it needs to be large ways and with strangers at a young age. There are many laws and restrictions that might prohibit children helping at shelters or food kitchens or visiting at hospitals. Depending on our state in life and ages of our children, we might not be able to do "big" things, but we can find multiple small ways that can be a foundation of charity and still touch and help others.

Charity Begins at Home

It's an old but very true saying that charity begins at home. We can't pretend being a "do-gooder" if we can't treat our own family kindly. Some of the basic guidelines for Christian charity are the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, based on the Gospel. For tangible works of charity, we start with the Corporal Works. The example starts at home when the children are small. First, they should see their parents being kind and loving to each other, even if in small ways. Feeding the hungry means meals are cooked and served with joy; drink to the thirsty means drinks poured and presented with a smile. Clothing the naked includes maintaining laundry, ironing and mending. Sheltering the homeless is caring for the home, inside and out, and spending money prudently. Sometimes there is a sharing of domestic chores, or ways to provide ways to show appreciation or provide a break (dinner out, toting or folding the laundry, etc.). The young children see the ways their parents care for each other and the children when sick or hurt (even to sleepless nights), practicing "Visiting the Sick." Visiting the imprisoned means a visit to the grandparents or other extended family, especially those who are lonely.

Later as the children grow older they learn how to apply charity with siblings and the entire family. Learning to help all members of the family and not be selfish is practicing daily charity. Doing common work around the house serves the family. Tasks such as setting and clearing the table is a way to feed the hungry. Serving a cup of water for a sister is giving drink to the thirsty. In cases of injury, offering comfort and Band-Aids instead of ignoring and continuing play is visiting the sick. Clothing the naked might mean just patiently tying a little brother's shoes for the fifth time. 

As the children get older, their vision expands to see ways to practice the Spiritual Works of Mercy within the family. Family members learn how to interact with each other, by being patient, sharing toys, speaking kindly, putting others first, serving one another, wiping away tears, teaching each other, learning right and wrong, and praying for one another.

The Circle of Charity Extends

Charity starts with the family, and continues throughout life. As our children get older, the circle of charity should expand to others outside the family circle. What is important to remember is even the smallest acts of charity touch hearts. Anytime we help a brother and sister in Christ, our act affects the whole Body of Christ. So yes, we are not going to do find bodies on the road to bury, but we can attend a funeral, bring food or give meal gift cards for a grieving family or sick friends or families who are welcoming new babies. 

Perhaps children can't visit the sick in hospitals, but they can draw a picture, make a card, or write a letter to send in the mail. There are other opportunities to visit, whether it be retirement homes or those that are housebound or lonely. The children join the family in praying for those who have died and for the sick and help bring flowers and send Mass cards.

Smallest Acts Touch Deeply

In my own personal experience, what has touched me most deeply are the smallest acts of charity: friends bring a cup of coffee, my sons assist me by being my legs and arms for small tasks around the house, different people provide rides for me and my sons, a sister shops for groceries and makes lunch, and my husband cooks dinner and washes laundry. This week I received two thoughtful surprises in the mail from friends who just lost their own wife/mother. In their own grief they had time to send Mass cards for my recovery. And I have had many other friends and family just send a quick text or email to check on how I'm doing.

I have tried to do some of those little ways that touched me in return. My sons have attended the monthly Mass at the assisted living home. Just their presence brings joy to the residents. I'm limited in driving, but I can still reach out with notes, either mailed or electronic to check on friends, especially those who are recently grieving, or those who are alone in the hospital or sick bed. 

The charity that touches a person most are the thoughtful personal acts, even if it is just a smile and eye contact. As my sons grow older, I hope we can expand our circle of charity, but I want them to learn that true Christian charity starts and continues within the family, and even the smallest act makes a difference. We can become like St. Camillus, giving our lives in service of others, when we realize all his work was building one small act of kindness and personal charity at a time. 

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: LaudemGloriae - Jul. 21, 2015 8:56 PM ET USA

    Your examples make it very clear how to practice charity at home and how children learn it from their parents example and doing it in small ways themselves. Thanks for the excellent article.