02 September 2022

Saint of the Week – St Peter Claver

Name: Peter Claver Born: 26 June 1580; Verdù, Catalonia (Spain). Died: 8th September 1654; Cartagena, Colombia. Feast Day: 9th September Patron Saint of: Slaves, Race-relations, seafarers, Colombia.

Peter Claver was born into a prosperous and pious family in Verdù, Catalonia. He was academically gifted and completed his studies at the University of Barcelona, before pursuing the priesthood with the Jesuits. He felt an increasingly strong call to work as a missionary in the “New World.” His superiors eventually granted his request and in 1610 at the age of 30 he left Spain never to return, arriving in his new home of Cartagena (in modern day Colombia).

By the time Peter arrived, the African slave trade had been operating in the Americas for about a hundred years. Pope Paul III and later Pope Urban VIII had unequivocally denounced and even prohibited the slave trade by papal decree. Nonetheless, the lucrative industry grew alongside the demand for labourers in the booming gold and silver mines, and the various agricultural plantations. The appalling abuse of the poor souls lured into the enterprise is a scandal on account of the many Christians who were complicit in the slave trade, yet there were various priests and religious dedicated to alleviating the sufferings of these slaves. One pioneer of this ministry was Fr Alfonso de Sandoval, who became Peter Claver’s mentor. From this time Peter declared himself to be “the slave of the slaves forever.”

As soon as any slave ship entered the port, Peter and his band of assistants would bring the slaves food, medicine, and much needed encouragement. The conditions on these slave ships were horrific beyond comprehension, filled with the suffocating stench of human misery. Disease and sickness were rife on the over-crowded and insanitary ships; many died on the journey. Peter did all he could to help the survivors and bring them hope. Nor did he neglect their spiritual needs, ensuring that none were denied the opportunity to receive the sacraments. Estimates suggest that throughout his life Peter baptised as many as 300,000 slaves. In one year, he is said to have heard 5,000 confessions. He consoled, catechised and helped as many as he could, teaching them hymns and reminding them of the glorious reward that awaited them in heaven. The care and attention that Peter gave to the slaves irritated the business operators and civil authorities alike. Whenever he visited the plantations he refused the hospitality of the owners preferring to lodge in the slave’s quarters in solidarity with them.

In his last years Peter’s strength gave way and sickness left him weakened and unable to continue his ministry. He remained inactive in his cell, for the most part forgotten, and even ill-treated. He died in 1654 at the age of 74 having spent all his life and energy in the service of his beloved slaves. Following his death, the magnitude of his apostolate became clear. His funeral saw the city of Cartagena flooded with mourners wanting to honour the life of this saint. Peter Claver’s saintly renown reached Europe, and he was canonised by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.

Although it was beyond the power of Peter Claver to stop the slave trade, his ministry had a profound effect on the treatment of slaves in the region. Conditions improved on account of his indomitable advocacy, and through his missionary endeavours countless slaves came to recognise, in spite of their present circumstances, their fundamental dignity and worth as beloved children of God, made in His image and likeness. The acceptance (or at least tolerance) of the slave trade shows that many Christians ignored official Church teaching on slavery, in much the same way that many Christians today ignore official Church teaching on abortion, to the detriment of the unborn. We look back in horror at the inhumanity of slavery, and yet many today seem wilfully blind to the horrors being perpetrated by our own culture, particularly the exploitation of the unborn, of children and women, the neglect of the elderly, and so on. What we do to the least of our brethren, for better or worse, we do to Christ (cf. Matt 25:40). St Peter Claver, like so many saints before and since, recognised this truth and sought to honour Christ above all in those the world had most forgotten. May we be inspired to do the same.

St Peter Claver, pray for us!