September 8, 2016

St. Peter Claver, Jesuit Missionary, 'Slave to the Slaves'

St. Peter Claver
September 9th, is the memorial of Saint Peter Claver, (1581-1654) the 17th century Spanish priest and missionary of the Society of Jesus. Known as the Apostle to the West Indies, he is the patron of African missions and interracial justice, due to his work among African slaves in Colombia. Claver's dedication to them was so complete, he was called the "Slave to the Slaves" He also served the poor, those who had fallen into heresy and those sentenced to death. Popular piety holds he worked tremendous miracles like raising people from the dead and prophesying the future deaths of others.

He was born to an affluent, devoutly Catholic family in Verdu, Spain. He earned his first degree at the University in Barcelona. where he was noted for his intelligence and piety. There, he wrote these words: "I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave." He recorded this pledge in a notebook he kept throughout his life.

At 20, he entered the Jesuits. While studying philosophy at the Jesuit seminary in Majorca, Claver met the future saint, Alphonsus Rodriguez, the porter of the college, who encouraged him to become a missionary in the New World. Heeding this advice, Claver travelled to Spain's overseas colonies, landing in Cartagena, Colombia in 1610. Upon his arrival, Claver was told his ministry to the native population would be curtailed pending his ordination. After completing his studies in Bogotá, he was ordained in 1616 while stationed in Cartagena.

In Cartagena, Claver witnessed how horribly the slaves from Africa were treated. Between 1616 and 1650, he worked daily to address the needs of the thousands of slaves who came each year, often, meeting each slave ship as it docked in port. Despite the suffocating heat and stench of such ships, he would enter the hold to tend to those inside. Additionally, he would visit slave warehouses, bring them food, water, medicine and clothing. When asked why, he replied, "We must speak to them with our hands, before we try to speak to them with our lips."

Claver evangelized all he encountered in the Catholic faith and baptized as many as he could. Through his efforts three hundred thousand souls entered the Church. He urged slave owners to give humane treatment to fellow Christians. Claver taught that slaves and the indigenous population where no less the children of God than the colonizing Spanish. Moreover, he knew well the principal that there is no evangelization without contemplation. He woke early in the morning to spend five hours in prayer before beginning his missionary activity.

St. Peter Claver died peacefully on September 8, 1654. The extent of his ministry was not fully realized until after his death. He was canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII, along with St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, his friend and mentor. In 1896, Leo XII declared Claver the patron of missionary work in Africa. His earthly remains are venerated in the Church of St. Peter Claver in Cartagena. O God, who made Saint Peter Claver a slave of slaves and strengthened him with wonder charity and patience as he came to their help, grant, through his intercession, that we, seeking the things of Jesus Christ, may love our neighbor in deeds and in truth.

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