St. Peter Claver, Feast day September 9

September 6, 1998

Brother John Raymond

Pope Leo XIII said once, "No life, except the life of Christ, has so moved me as that of St. Peter Claver." Who was he? At one of the side of an altar in a late 19th century church in Verdu, 54 miles from Barcelona, a marble tablet reads, "Here St. Peter Claver, the Apostle of the Negroes, was born. He was baptized in the parish church of this town on July 26, 1580. He died in Cartagena de Indias [Colombia] on September 8, 1654. He was solemnly canonized by Leo XIII on January 15, 1888." Certainly, there is more to his story.

Witnesses in his beatification process mention St. Peter Claver's childhood and claim that the piety of his family made a deep impression on him. In the will of his parents provision is made to provide oil for a lamp before the Blessed Sacrament on the altar of St. Stephen and for the perpetual celebration of Mass at the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary. Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the rosary were two devotions of the family.

At the age of twenty Peter entered the Jesuit novitiate. While studying philosophy at Majorca in 1605, St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, the saintly doorkeeper of the college, seems to have learned from God the future mission of Peter and exhorted him to set out to evangelize the Spanish possessions in America. Peter listened to the Saint and in 1610 he landed at Cartagena, where for forty-four years he was the Apostle of the African slaves.

Cartagena was the chief slave market of the New World. A thousand slaves landed there each month. Half of the slaves from the coasts of Guinea, the Congo and Angola would die on the way. But the colonists didn't care. They needed laborers to cultivate the soil that they had conquered and to exploit the gold mines. Of course, the Church did not support what they were doing and Popes spoke out against it. The colonists hated the missionaries because they helped the slaves and condemned their actions. No one worked more heroically for the slaves than Peter Claver.

Peter declared himself the "Slave of the Negroes." He went out to meet their boat, carrying food. Those who arrived alive, after having had been mistreated and cooped up in the ship's hold, arrived crazed and fearful. Peter went among them and cared for them. He won their trust. He countless times wrapped his cloak around plague victims and lepers. He even was known many times to kiss the sores on the slaves' bodies caused by the brutality of their masters. The conditions he worked in where enough to make anyone sick to the stomach.

In order to instruct the slaves in the Faith Peter organized a group of interpreters and catechists of various nationalities. Along with administering to their physical needs, Peter also heard their confessions 8 to 12 hours a day and administered the other sacraments as well. During his life he baptized and instructed in the Faith more than 300,000 slaves.

He suffered many severe trials because of his work and not only from the slave merchants. Other Catholics accused him of indiscreet zeal and of profaning the Sacraments by giving them to slaves. High-class women refused to enter the churches where Father Claver assembled the slaves. Peter accepted all these humiliations and even added rigorous penance to his works of charity. He contracted the plague in 1650 and suffered helpless dependence during the last four years of his life, enduring abuse and insult from the slave who was hired to care for him. He died in 1654.

I have heard of a family that goes to a poor country on their yearly vacation to help the desperately poor. They find it so rewarding that they go back year after year. May St. Peter Claver inspire us all to serve those in need!