September 9: Saint Peter Claver, Priest—USA Memorial
Patron Saint of African missions, African-Americans, black missions, black people, foreign missions, interracial justice, slaves, and Colombia
Invoked against slavery
Canonized by Pope Leo XIII on January 15, 1888
Liturgical Color: White
Yesterday, May 30, 1627, on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, numerous blacks, brought from the rivers of Africa, disembarked from a large ship. Carrying two baskets of oranges, lemons, sweet biscuits, and I know not what else, we hurried toward them. When we approached their quarters, we thought we were entering another Guinea. We had to force our way through the crowd until we reached the sick. Large numbers of the sick were lying on the wet ground or rather in puddles of mud. To prevent excessive dampness, someone had thought of building up a mound with a mixture of tiles and broken pieces of bricks. This, then, was their couch, a very uncomfortable one not only for that reason, but especially because they were naked, without any clothing to protect them… ~Letter from Saint Peter Claver
Saint Peter Claver was born to devout, upper-class parents in Verdú, Catalonia, Spain, a small farming village. Not much is known about his early years. At twenty years old, he entered the Jesuit novitiate and was sent to study at the Jesuit college of Montesión on the island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain. There, he met Brother Alphonsus Rodriguez, the seventy-year-old doorkeeper of the college. Known for his humility, piety, and spiritual insight, Brother Rodriguez served as the college’s doorkeeper for forty-six years. He carried out menial tasks, delivered messages, welcomed guests, and offered a compassionate ear to all who came to the door with needs. Peter sought his advice and their friendship blossomed. Encouraged by Brother Rodriguez, Peter decided to become a missionary in the Spanish colonies in South America. In 1610, he set sail for Cartagena, Colombia.
The Spanish port city of Cartagena, in present-day Colombia, was founded in 1533, over seventy years before Peter Claver arrived. After the establishment of Cartagena and other colonies, the Spanish Crown began granting licenses for the importation of African slaves to meet labor demands. Cartagena quickly became a major hub in the transatlantic slave trade due to its strategic location. By the time Father Claver was ordained, it is estimated that about 10,000 slaves were being transported annually on Spanish ships to Cartagena and subsequently sold.
The conditions the slaves endured on the ships were horrific, leading to the death from disease and malnutrition of an estimated one-third of them during the journey. The Spanish turned to African slaves in part because many of the indigenous people in their colonies had died of diseases brought by the Europeans, to which the indigenous populations had no immunity. When the number of indigenous people dropped, the colonizers looked elsewhere for laborers. With contact already established between Europeans and Africans—including slavery—the Spanish believed that the Africans were more resistant to European diseases and better able to survive the harsh conditions of forced labor. Despite outcries against these abuses from the Church, including from popes, the cruel behavior continued.
After arriving in Cartagena, Peter spent about six years studying in Tunja and Bogotá. He was then ordained a priest in Cartagena, where he committed himself to serving the African slaves for the rest of his life. Though there were other priests in Cartagena, most of them ministered to the colonizers. Father Peter chose to make the slaves his congregation and their salvation his mission. When he made his final profession, Father Claver signed it with these words: “Peter Claver, slave of the slaves, forever.”
During his thirty-eight years as an ordained priest in Cartagena, it is conservatively estimated that Father Claver catechized and baptized over 300,000 slaves. His practice was to wait at the port for a new slave ship to arrive. Each ship often contained as many as 500 slaves who had endured conditions unsuitable for animals for the two-to-three-month journey. They were poorly fed once a day, chained naked to each other, abused, threatened, and forced to sit in their own excrement and vomit. Often, the flesh on their wrists bled and became infected from the metal shackles that held them as the ship tossed in the waves.
Once the ship arrived, Father Claver went door-to-door begging for food for his new flock. He then brought his small band of African interpreters and charitable workers, entered the foul-smelling hull of the ship where he found many dead and others lifeless, filled with fear, and in need of medical treatment and compassion. As a sign of his love for them, he often kissed their sores, sucked out the infectious pus, and washed the wounds with his own handkerchiefs. He would baptize any babies, provide food to the hungry, and demonstrate a depth of compassion that many had never seen. He then helped transport the slaves to a new location, carrying those who could not walk, where they could be well fed and regain their strength before being sold.
Father Claver’s approach to this horrific problem was unique. His primary concern was the salvation of souls. He did not stir up self-pity for their dreadful plight, nor incite the slaves against their oppressors, although he often chastised the oppressors directly, calling them to repentance for their cruelty. Instead, he preached the Gospel to the slaves in ways they could understand, in ways that would benefit them for eternity. He helped them see their innate dignity and restored that dignity, not by railing against the abuses they endured, but by railing against sin and helping the slaves find freedom in Christ. He told them they were sinners in need of repentance and that there was a loving God who died for their sins and wanted to forgive them and fill them with joy. He held up the crucifix, revealing the God Who suffered for them, showing them the way to Heaven and how to avoid hell. As they listened, learned, believed, and converted, they were baptized. The moment of baptism was often a moment of profound tears and rejoicing for these slaves. Though physically bound and abused, they found they were freer than ever before because of the grace that flooded their souls upon repenting, professing faith in Christ, and being baptized.
When Peter learned that the next ship would not be arriving for months, he set off to travel the countryside to meet up with those he had baptized. Upon arriving on a plantation, he avoided spending time with the owners and spent all his time with the slaves, even sleeping and eating in the slaves’ quarters. He gave them further instruction in the Catholic faith, taught them to pray, and offered them hope any way he could. At times, when the converted slaves returned to sinful habits, Father Claver seemed to arrive out of nowhere, chastising them with love and calling them to repentance, thus restoring their Christian dignity.
After more than forty years of dedicated and heartfelt ministry to the slaves, Father Claver himself fell ill. He spent his final days enduring mistreatment from one of his caregivers, who was also a slave. Far from complaining, Father Claver accepted this treatment, uniting it with the suffering of Christ on the Cross. He saw it as a form of penance for any remaining sins of his own and a way to deepen his communion with those he had devoted his life to serving.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Saint Peter Claver indeed devoted his life to the slaves. He campaigned for better treatment for them and admonished their abusers, yet he discovered that his most significant act of love was to assist these children of God in becoming sons and daughters of God by grace. By instilling faith in them, he offered them hope. With hope, they cultivated charity, and by growing in charity, they found joy and fulfillment amid their terrible human conditions.
As we pay homage to this “slave of the slaves,” consider your own life priorities. Fighting injustice is not only noble but an essential work of mercy. However, working for the salvation of souls is the greatest act of mercy we can perform. Reflect on any ways you might endure injustice and draw inspiration, not only from Saint Peter Claver but also from the slaves who, despite suffering cruel treatment, dedicated their lives to Christ and found joy in Him alone. They teach us that no circumstance in this world can rob us of our dignity and joy if we surrender our lives to Christ and let His loving mercy encompass us.
Saint Peter Claver, you embarked upon a journey into the hellish conditions of abuse and suffering, caused by greed and a total lack of respect for human dignity. Within those conditions, you brought the light of Christ and administered the grace of the Sacraments, giving hope to those who needed it the most. Please pray for me, that I will be a beacon of hope for those who need it the most, by always preaching Christ Crucified and making the salvation of souls, beginning with my own, my number-one priority. Saint Peter Claver, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.