Today, September 9, is the Memorial of St. Peter Claver.
Peter was born on June 26, 1580 in Catalonia, Spain, to a devout Catholic family. Educated at the University of Barcelona, Peter vowed to devote his life to the service of God from early on.
Peter joined the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) at the age of twenty. During his novitiate, he met St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, who encouraged him to missionary work in America. He left for South America, arriving in Cartagena, Columbia in 1610. While still studying for the Jesuits he became disturbed by the condition and treatment of the slaves in the New World. Cartagena was a major center of the slave trade, where 10,000 slaves were brought to America from Africa every year. There treatment during the sea journey was so horrible that an estimated third died en route. Though the slave trade had been condemned and forbidden by Popes Paul III and Urban VIII. Nevertheless, these condemnation were ignored. Another example of people, even Catholics, not willing to do what is right because there’s too much money to be made in doing what is wrong.
Fr. Alonso de Sandoval, SJ had been ministering to the slaves for forty years when Peter met him and turned to him as guide and mentor. When Peter made his final profession in 1622, he signed the document: Petrus Claver, aethiopum semper servus (Peter Claver, servant of the Ethiopians [Africans] forever).
Fr. Peter would take his small boat out to the slave ships on their arrival. Immediately, he would make his way to the slave hold, bring food, drink, medicine and spiritual comfort to those who had managed to survive the wretched voyage. He would focus first on meeting their physical needs, saying, “We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips.” After they had recovered, Fr. Peter would offer catechism, teaching them the love of Christ for them and to remember their dignity as children of God. It is estimated that St. Peter Claver baptized 300,000 during the forty years of his ministry.
Fr. Peter did not limit his ministry to the slaves only on their arrival to America. He would regularly visit those he had baptized on the plantations where they worked, continuing his catechetical education and encouraging their masters to treat them humanely. When he visited the plantations, he would insist on staying in the slave quarters, despite the objections of the planation owners. As well, he extended his ministry to include lepers, the poor, prisoners, merchants and sailors, and made regular trips to the hospital to minister to the ill.
Fr. Peter met with mixed reactions from the Spanish in Cartagena. Some would contribute to his ministry. Others refused to be seen in the churches where he celebrated Mass and preached.
A story of St. Peter Claver is that he was called to the shack of a slave who was suffering from epileptic seizures. Those who had come with him to assist ran from the shack, fearful of what they did not understand. Fr. Peter called back to them, “Don’t run! We must help him. This is Jesus, our brother. This is Jesus, our brother.”
In 1550, Peter became ill from one of the several epidemics Cartagena endured during his years there. He lingered for four years, abused at the hands of a former slave his Superiors had hired to care for him. He accepted this abuse, never complaining about it, as punishment for his sins. When he died on September 8, 1854 the magistrates of Cartagena, who had previously opposed his ministry to the slaves, ordered a public funeral with great ceremony.
Peter Claver was beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1851 and canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1888, along with Alphonsus Rodriguez, the lay porter to the Jesuits who had first encouraged him to the missions.
St. Peter called himself the slave to the slaves. He is the patron saint of slaves, of the country of Columbia, and of ministry to Africans. Many African-American Catholic parishes are named in his honor.
Pope Francis will visit Columbia on September 10. He is scheduled to visit the shrine to St. Peter Claver while there and to pray the Angelus at his tomb.
O God, who made Saint Peter Claver a slave of slaves and strengthened him with wonderful charity and patience as he came to their help, grant, through his intercession, that, seeking the things of Jesus Christ, we may love our neighbor in deeds and in truth. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. From New … Saint Joseph Weekday Missal
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.