Born into a military family, Camillus de Lellis joined his father in the army and fought several battles in Italy. After his regiment was disbanded, he worked in a Capuchin friary, but was struck by a war injury to his leg. Through a series of events God led him to a hospital in Rome where his wounds were eventually healed. He decided to work there as a nurse and soon became the hospital’s director.
With the consultation of his spiritual director, St. Philip Neri, he studied to become a priest and soon after founded a religious order dedicated to serving the sick.
In 1582 de Lellis founded the Order of Clerks Regular, Ministers of the Infirm (M.I.), later known as the Camillians. Having a special knowledge of the military and experience as a wounded soldier, de Lellis and his companions accompanied armies and assisted the wounded on the battlefield. To distinguish them, they wore a black cassock with a bright red cross.
According to the Camillians, “During the battle of Canizza in 1601, the Lord permitted a miraculous event to occur which manifested His approval of the red cross of St. Camillus. While Camillians were busily occupied with the wounded, the tent in which they were and in which they had all of their equipment and supplies was completely destroyed and burned to the ground. Everything in the tent was destroyed except the red cross of a habit belonging to one of the Camillians who was ministering to the wounded on the battlefield.”
However, while the Camillians could often be seen on the battlefield, their order was not large enough to accompany every army. This meant each country had different symbols to represent their military medical services. Seeing this discrepancy in the mid 19th century, along with the increase in wounded due to firearms technology, Henry Dunant proposed improvements to help alleviate the situation.
In 1862 he proposed “to set up in peacetime and in every country volunteer groups to take care of casualties in wartime; to get countries to agree to protect first aid volunteers and the wounded on the battlefield.” A committee met in 1863 to consider his proposals and to “adopt a single distinctive symbol backed by the law to indicate respect for army medical services, volunteers with first aid societies and the victims of armed conflicts. The symbol needed to be simple, identifiable from a distance, known to everyone and identical for friend and foe. The emblem had to be the same for everyone and universally recognizable.”
In 1864 the First Geneva Convention approved the red cross on a white background as the easily identifiable symbol. The symbol drew more on the national flag of Switzerland for inspiration than St. Camillus de Lellis. As Red Cross International explains, “Since the emblem was to reflect the neutrality of the armed forces’ medical services and the protection conferred on them, the emblem adopted was formed by reversing the colours of the Swiss flag.”
Additionally, since white is traditionally known as a symbol of surrender, white on the battlefield would be protected.
So while the Red Cross and Camillians have similar emblems and almost identical missions, their inspiration differs substantially.
Why do Catholics make the Sign of the Cross before praying?