This month (Sept. 9) we celebrate the feast of St. Peter Claver, S.J., a great saint who fought for the human rights of black slaves. In his apostolate St. Peter Claver did not only wish to relieve the sufferings of the slaves but also to redeem them. He never justified useless rebellion and bloodshed; his mission was to be an apostle who devoted himself lovingly and totally to the race. Pope Leo XIII once said of him: “No other life except the life of Christ has so moved me as that of St. Peter Claver.”
Pedro Claver was born in the Catalan village of Verdú near Barcelona, Spain. His family had great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the rosary. At the age of 20 Peter Claver entered the Society of Jesus and he was sent to study philosophy at Palma, Mallorca. While there, he became good friends with the porter of the college, Alphonsus Rodriguez, a lay brother known for his holiness and gift of prophecy. Brother Alphonsus told a Jesuit priest that “Brother Peter will go to Cartagena and will work among blacks and gather in a great harvest of souls.”
In 1610 Claver boarded a ship bound for Cartagena, Colombia. A year later he was ordained in the city’s cathedral. On the paper on which he signed his vows he wrote, “Love, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Ignatius, Peter, my own Alonso, Thomas, Laurence, Bartholomew, my saints, patrons and my intercessors and those of my beloved blacks, hear me.” He then signed: “Petrus Claver,aethiopum semper servus;” translated, “Peter Claver, slave of the blacks forever.” At these final vows to become a Jesuit, he laid a deep foundation for his future apostolate, “Slave of the slaves of God.”
Cartagena by its location in the Caribbean Sea became the chief slave market of the New World. A thousand slaves landed there each month. Father Alonso de Andrade in 1757 wrote, “The slave who costs one or two reales in Angola is sold in Cartagena for two hundred. The cost of transporting them is not great, and as profit is so high, a great number of people go in for this trade, induced by greed.”
The repeated censures by different popes could not prevail against this evil. Pope Paul III had condemned the slave trade; Pope Urban VIII had issued a papal decree prohibiting slavery; and Pope Pius IX referred to the selling of humans as “supreme villainy.”
The first apostle for the black race was Father Alfonso de Sandoval, who had written the notable work “On Salvation and Catechizing of Negroes.” Sandoval would become Claver’s teacher. One day in Cartagena, Father Sandoval took Father Claver to two places where thousands of slaves were waiting to be sold. On that day Claver made a resolution that he would also be a slave — spiritually.
Every month when the ships carrying the slaves approached Cartagena, Claver — laden with food and clothing — would go out to meet the ship before it docked in the port. Father Claver always carried a leather bag filled with a Bible, a religious handbook, holy oil, a cross, a rosary, tobacco, etc. Black slave interpreters, or “his other hand,” would accompany him. Without knowing the different languages, Claver would communicate with the frightened slaves by embracing them and speaking to them with love and compassion.
For 40 years, Peter Claver was more than “a slave to the slaves.” He worked defending, protecting and nursing the slaves arriving from Africa. Along with his interpreters, he taught them catechism from five to eight hours a day. He baptized more than 300,000 slaves. This Jesuit saint was their protector and father. He went to each one, cared for him and showed him kindness. On Sundays during Lent he assembled the slaves and inquired about their needs, and defended them against their aggressors. He visited the hospitals regularly and the huts of the dying poor throughout the city and countryside. He would hear confessions of slaves for hours on end.
This missionary work caused Claver severe trials as the slave merchants became furious with him. The Apostle to the Slaves was accused of indiscreet zeal and having profaned the sacraments by giving them to “creatures who did not have a soul.”
The saint saw the slaves as persons with an inherent dignity and a soul. Claver favored the poor but demanded that the rich should carry out their duties. He believed that the solution to slavery lay in the Christian cooperation between the powerful and the weak. He had friends in the upper strata of the society in Cartagena. In many cases he was a spiritual director and friend of the rich whom he convinced to help him with this apostolate. Many became benefactors of St. Peter Claver’s work by providing food, clothing and even money to help the slaves. A rich landowner, Don Pedro Urbino, said of Claver that “no mother would ever care for her children as Claver watched over his slaves.”
He was also a miracle worker of New Granada. One day Claver entered a ship filled with slaves with small pox, measles and spotted fever, and began to pray and catechize all of them. Everyone including himself did not get sick or die. There was a blind woman living in a hut in Colombia, who was visited often by Father Claver. He saw to it that she was never in need of anything spiritual or material. In fact, after four years of visits and prayers, she regained her sight. Another miracle is about a fierce and rebellious slave named Amete, who resisted the saint’s efforts to baptize him for more than 30 years. He was a confirmed Muslim. However, at the end of St. Peter Claver’s life when he was on his death bed, Amete asked to become a Catholic.
Claver spent his last months of life in complete abandonment, a pattern of the cross of Christ. He spent this time in suffering and prayer. However, even up to his last day Claver had himself taken to the dock in a litter. There he embraced and spoke to the slaves, which was his last apostolic act with the slaves. When the people heard of his death, many slaves forced their way into the monastery to pay their last respects. Such was his reputation for holiness that they stripped away anything to serve as a relic of the saint.
St. Peter Claver is one of the greatest saints of the Society of Jesus. His reaction to man’s cruelty to man was charity. Therefore, he refused to recognize the lawfulness of the slave trade. He was an extremist in fearless love. He was the liberator of the black race because he offered the frightened and abandoned slaves coming to America a sense that they were individuals and human, with a soul. By making himself a “slave” he showed a fundamental equality of the races. And with the sacrifices of his life, he proved that compassion and love still remained in the world.
St. Peter Claver was canonized in 1888 by Pope Leo XII along with his friend, the Jesuit porter Alphonsus Rodriguez. Later he was declared the patron of missionary work among all African peoples.
Part of his legacy is the Knights of Peter Claver, which is the largest African-American Catholic fraternal organization in the United States. This group of Catholics seeks to emulate the charitable acts and corporal works of mercy that St. Peter Claver performed throughout his lifetime.
Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Norristown.