September 8, 2017

Saint Peter Claver, Jesuit Priest and Missionary

Saint Peter Claver

Memorial - September 9th

There are not many who would willingly make themselves slaves, but Saint Peter Claver, the 17th century Jesuit priest and missionary did. What is particularly noteworthy about this young Spaniard’s servitude in the New World is that he took it upon himself willingly, declaring himself , "the slave of the slave." Popular piety holds, in addition to his prodigious efforts, he worked tremendous miracles like raising people from the dead and prophesying the future deaths of others.

Peter Claver was born in Verdu, Spain, in 1581. Although the family line was one of the oldest and most distinguished in that country, by the time Claver was born, his own family consisted of impoverished farmers. Nevertheless, he entered the Jesuit college of Barcelona and soon entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1602. It was while studying philosophy that he was inspired by the college’s doorkeeper, the future saint Alphonsus Rodriguez to become a missionary in the New World. He spent his life ministering to the natives in the Spanish colonies of South America.

In 1610, Claver landed in the city of Cartagena, located in present-day Colombia. Even though no less than two popes had condemned slavery, this port city was the center of a thriving slave trade, and had been for over a century. It is estimated that in the early 17th century, over ten thousand slaves arrived from West Africa in conditions so abominable that one-third of them died in transit.

It became immediately clear to Claver what he must do. His predecessor, Jesuit Father Alfonso de Sandoval had spent forty years working among the slaves, and now it was his turn to continue that work. Although by nature a timid man, he soon proved himself an able organizer and a fearless advocate of the multitudes who arrived in such horrible conditions. Whenever a slave ship would enter the port, he would go to meet it, laden with medicine, food, brandy, lemons (to combat scurvy) and tobacco. Despite being traumatized by the brutality inflicted upon them, the slaves soon learned that Claver was a true defender and friend.

After caring for their physical needs, he turned his attention to their spiritual necessities. Because of the large numbers of languages and dialects spoken by the slaves, he assembled and organized a group of interpreters, who he also made catechists. With their help, he instructed the slaves in the faith. Throughout his 40-year ministry, it is estimated he baptized as many as 300,000 individuals.

Although he was beloved by those he served, the same could not be said for those in power, particularly the slave merchants. Upper class women would not enter churches where Claver had gathered his slaves. Even his superiors, acting on the reports that came back to them from those in authority, did not support him. But Claver continued in his work, becoming not only the advocate of the African slave, but the moral voice and conscience of Cartagena. He preached in the city and gave missions to sailors. He followed the slaves to the plantations, continuing their spiritual care and admonishing their owners to treat them humanely. He made a point of avoiding the decadent hospitality of the wealthy planters, however, preferring to spend his time in the slave quarters instead.

For the last four years of his life the future saint fell ill and was unable to work or preach. Largely neglected, he finally died on Sept. 9, 1654. The city officials, who had once turned their backs on Claver, insisted that he be buried with great ceremony. Pope Leo XIII, who declared him the patron of African missions, canonized him in 1888. 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, and may love our neighbor in imitation of our Lord. Saint Peter Claver, pray for us.

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