St. Peter Claver, “slave of the slaves”
Today, September 9, is the memorial of St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest who dedicated his life to the service of African slaves.
The son of a Catalonian farmer, Peter was born in Verdu, Spain in 1581. He obtained his first degrees at the University of Barcelona. At the age of twenty, he entered the Jesuit novitiate and was ordained in 1615. While Peter was studying philosophy at Majorca, he met St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, the door-keeper of the college, who learned from God the future mission of his young friend. St. Alphonsus, therefore, encouraged Peter to travel to South America to work with the African slaves. Peter obeyed, and in 1610 landed at Cartagena, where for forty-four years he was the “Apostle of the African slaves.”
Cartagena became the chief slave-mart of the New World, where many thousands of African slaves were landed after crossing the ocean amid inhuman conditions, and then penned like animals in yards. A thousand slaves landed there each month. There were huge profits in the slave trade. Although the slave-traders expected at least one third of the slave cargo to die, the profits remained substantial. One pope after another wrote, condemned, and excommunicated those in the slave trade, but, the money was too enticing. The missionaries could not suppress slavery, but only alleviate it, and no one worked more courageously than Peter Claver.
Vowing to be “a slave of the slaves forever,” Peter Claver’s life was characterized by heroic charity. Although shy and lacking in self-confidence, through the power of the Holy Spirit, he became a bold and brilliant organizer. Every month when the slaves arrived, Peter met them on the pilot’s boat, carrying food and delicacies. Taking only a minimum of sleep, he tirelessly cared for the slaves, washing and tending their wounds, feeding them with food he had begged for in the city, burying their dead, and comforting them. He even defended them against their oppressors. He instructed the adults via interpreters and pictures, and during the forty years of his ministry, he baptized more than 300,000 slaves. He fought fearlessly for enforcement of the law providing for the Christian marriage of the slaves and forbidding the separation of families.
When the plague struck the city in 1650, Peter was one of its first victims. For four years, he was bedridden in his cell, unable to work, and nearly forgotten. However, when he announced his imminent death, crowds came to kiss his hands and feet. He was given a public burial, and the fame of his heroism, his holiness, and his miracles soon spread throughout the world. Leo XIII declared him the patron of all missionary work among blacks.
Patron: against slavery; foreign missions; black people; race relations; Colombia; diocese of Shreveport, Louisiana; diocese of Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Symbols: ship; cockle shell used for baptizing; usually pictured baptizing a black slave.
Quote: “To love God as He ought to be loved, we must be detached from all temporal love. We must love nothing but Him, or if we love anything else, we must love it only for His sake.”