Saint Peter Claver

St Peter Claver, Priest, SJ (Memorial)

Peter Claver was born in Verdu, in Catalonia (Spain) in 1580 and was educated at Barcelona University. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1602 at Tarragona. While still in his studies he was sent to the Jesuit college in Palma de Mallorca (Majorca). Here he met Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit Brother who was the doorkeeper of the college (and who was later canonised as a saint). In conversations with Alphonsus, Peter was fired with a desire to do missionary work in the New World then being colonised by Spain and Portugal. He did his theological studies at Barcelona and then was sent to Cartagena (now in Colombia) in 1610. Six years later, he was ordained priest in 1616.

At this time Cartagena was one of the main clearing houses of a flourishing but shameful trading of Africans from Angola and other parts of West Africa who were brought over in huge numbers under dreadful conditions to work as slaves in the New World. It has been estimated that some 10,000 individuals were shipped to Cartagena every year.

Peter began his work with the slaves under Fr Alfonso de Sandoval, who had already spent 40 years in this work. Peter walked in his predecessor’s footsteps and did even more.

When a slave-ship arrived in the port, the slaves were crowded like animals into large enclosures, crammed together in intense heat without care or medical attention of any kind. Peter would visit them bringing medicine, food, brandy and tobacco. He had a group of assistants who helped in the distribution and also acted as interpreters. With their help and also by using pictures, Peter taught the basics of Christianity and prepared many slaves for baptism. In their dreadful living conditions, he also tried to increase their awareness of their basic dignity as people for each one of whom Christ died.

From Cartagena, the slaves would then be sent to work in the mines, work which was regarded as too difficult for the native peoples, and also to plantations. Peter would visit these places in the spring, not always with the approval of their owners. He would also take personal care of slaves reduced to conditions which no one else could endure. When he had pronounced his final vows in 1622, he signed his name, “Peter Claver, slave of the slaves forever” (Aethiopum semper servus). It was a promise he more than lived up to.

He did not confine his ministry to the slaves. He was also concerned about the spiritual welfare of the more prosperous members of society as well as traders and others passing through, including Muslims and English Protestants. He also helped prepare condemned prisoners for death and was a regular visitor to the hospitals. Every autumn he would go on a preaching mission to merchants and seamen in every port.

As well as leading a life of great austerity, miracles, prophetic statements and the gift of reading hearts were attributed to him. In 1650, he was taken ill while preaching to the slaves. It seems to have been a stroke because he was partially paralysed for the remaining four years of his life. Neglected by the young African who was supposed to take care of him, he was only able to go for short visits to the hospital or friends. However, he did live long enough to welcome his successor in his work. At his death on 8-September, 1654 the civil authorities and the clergy, who had been highly critical of him in life, were now united in his praise. He was given a civic funeral while the slaves and the native people arranged a Requiem of their own.

Peter is revered for his great love of neighbour and his work in overcoming racial barriers and hatred. Pope Leo XIII canonized him in 1888 and in 1896 the same pope declared him special patron of missions to the black peoples.

His feast is now celebrated on 10-September, two days after his death.

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