The Old Testament Book of Sirach pays an important tribute to physicians. “Hold the physician in honor,” Sirach says, “for he is essential to you, and God it was who established his profession” (38:1). St. Paul calls St. Luke the Evangelist a “beloved physician” (Col, 4:14). In our own time another saintly medical doctor has been canonized to whom God has communicated some of his healing power. He is St. Richard Pampuri, M.D.
Dr. Pampuri, the tenth of the eleven children of Innocenzo and Angela Pampuri, was born in the province of Pavia, northern Italy, on August 2, 1897, and baptized Erminio Filippo. His mother, in poor health, died when he was only three. Thereupon, his maternal grandparents offered to raise the youngster in their village. The grieving father accepted their kindly offer.
Growing up in the household of his grandfolks his Aunt Maria and her husband Dr. Carlo, the village physician, Erminio had the great blessing of being raised in an atmosphere of devout and loving Christianity. From the outset, he proved to be a winsome child naturally disposed to do the right thing. Though not physically strong, nevertheless, when he started to go to school, he did not allow the long walks to and from the schoolhouse, in weather fair or foul, to interfere with his perfect attendance. His teachers in elementary and secondary school all spoke of him as “outstanding under every aspect”.
When Erminio was ten, his father was killed in a traffic accident. Even as a lad young Pampuri had wanted to become a missionary priest, but he was dissuaded from that vocation because of his delicate health. Instead, he fell more and more under the influence of his uncle Carlo, a country doctor whose generosity and good example impressed him with the ministry of healing. Carlo also paid his way through schools and college. He must have been gratified when Erminio told him that he had enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine at Pavia.
The impression he made on teachers and fellow students while in college and medical school continued to be very positive. His quiet excellence in behavior and study made him a natural leader. Despite the anticlerical milieu of the university, he calmly attended daily Mass and received Holy Communion regularly. He was active in the student Catholic Actions groups, and attracted large numbers of his fellow students to these apostolates.
When Italy entered World War I, Erminio Filippo was conscripted into the Medical Corps. After a brief course in field medicine he was sent to the front. Most of his work seems to have been in field hospitals, but he was nevertheless shocked by the brutality of war. “What a stupid waste of human life,” he wrote. “So many wounded, so many broken bodies!” He outdid himself in serving these casualties. A companion said of him, “He was always very kind to the wounded soldiers, particularly those with the gravest wounds. He was always on hand to comfort them and was concerned that they should receive the Sacraments.” Personally he always carried the New Testament and the Imitation of Christ in his pocket, to be read in the brief moments of leisure. By the end of the war he had been promoted to Second Lieutenant, Medical Corps.
When the war ended in 1918, Erminio returned to the Medical School of Favia. On July 6,1921, he graduated at the top of his class in medicine and surgery. In 1922 he completed his internship with high honors, and was appointed to practice at Morimondo in the Province of Milan. Now he practiced medicine to the hilt. But he also found time to organize the parish youth, to serve as secretary of the parochial missionary society, and arrange retreats for adolescents and farmers. Don Alesina, pastor of the parish, called him “my lay curate”.
Now that he was a physician, Pampuri was able to prove to himself that his profession was indeed a “ministry”. “I always see Jesus in my patients,” he wrote to his sister, a missionary in Egypt, “so it is He whom I cure, comforting Him who suffered and died to expiate our sins.” Since most of his patients were poor, he gave them free medicine and money, food, clothing and blankets as needed.
Dr. Pampuri still felt an attraction to the religious life. After six years at Morimondo, on the advice of his spiritual director, he decided to join the Hospitallers of St. John of God, a religious order of nursing brothers. The Brothers were happy to receive him. He entered the Order officially in 1927, received the religious name “Riccardo” (Richard) and took his first vows in 1928. His new companions quickly agreed that Brother Richard was in every way an authentic son of St. John of God.
Unfortunately, Pampuri, while in the armed services, had suffered a bout with pleurisy. That ailment struck him anew in August 1929, and degenerated into bronchial pneumonia. He died in the Order’s hospital in Milan on May 1, 1930, aged only 33.
The speed with which he was beatified and canonized testifies to the reputation for high holiness that this admirable young man had acquired. Pope John Paul II declared him blessed in 1981 and proclaimed him a saint in 1989.
In a day when many physicians seem to ignore their Hippocratic oath to do patients no harm, it is good to have ranked among the saints one who saw Jesus in those whom he sought to cure.
-Father Robert F. McNamara