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Slave of the Slaves

Saint Peter Claver

Slave of the Slaves: Saint Peter Claver

For a few brief years early in the seventeenth century, two Jesuit saints-in-the-making lived together on the beautiful Mediterranean island of Majorca. Alphonsus Rodriguez, the respected older brother at the Jesuit College there, had taken under his wing Peter Claver, a devoted young seminarian.

During their time together, Rodriguez set a fire in Claver’s heart for the mission that would become his life’s work. “I can’t tell you how much it grieves me to think that God is unknown in the greater part of the world, because so few go there to make him known,” Rodriguez would say. “The seas have already been charted by greed. Can’t love cross them as well? If you love the glory of God’s house, go to the Indies and save these perishing people.” These words—and many more like them—made an indelible mark on Claver and shaped the young man’s vision for his life.

The Path to the New World. Peter Claver was born into a farming family in Catalonia, Spain, in 1580. After studying at the University of Barcelona, he decided to become a Jesuit. When he took his first vows, Claver—speaking more prophetically than he probably realized—dedicated himself to God “on the understanding that I am like a slave, wholly occupied in the service of his master.”

In 1605, Claver was sent to the Jesuit College on Majorca to study philosophy. There his superior encouraged him to open his heart to Rodriguez. The elder Jesuit recognized Claver’s dedication and helped direct his attention to the vast amount of work waiting to be done in Spain’s colonies in the New World.

Moved largely by Rodriguez’ vision, Claver volunteered to work in the West Indies. When he set sail for New Granada—a territory including present-day Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela—in 1610, he made sure he took with him some notes on the spiritual life written by Rodriguez. Claver kept these pages close to him and reread them constantly throughout his life.

Slave of the Slaves. Well situated on the Caribbean Sea, the bustling seaport of Cartagena in New Granada was one of the principal slave markets in the Americas. The African slave trade had been introduced into the New World in 1505 when the conquering Spanish colonists found the natives physically unfit for the hard work being forced upon them. To make up for the labor shortage, traders bought blacks on the coasts of Guinea, the Congo, and Angola for a few crowns each and transported them to the New World under terrible conditions. Chained and packed tightly into the foul holds of the galleons, as many as half of the Africans died during the voyage. But that didn’t deter the dealers. Since a slave could sell for as much as two hundred crowns, they still made a huge profit. In Claver’s time alone, more than ten thousand Africans were brought to Cartagena each year.

Although Pope Paul III condemned slavery, the church didn’t have the power to prevent it. The laws of Spain did, however, recognize slaves as human beings and made provision for their Christianization. Some masters were humane and generous toward their slaves—caring for them well and sending them to Mass—but many others were merciless and cruel.

Upon ordination in 1615, Claver immediately began to assist Fr. Alfonso Sandoval, a fellow Jesuit who had dedicated himself to caring for the slaves. Claver learned from Sandoval how to minister to the slaves in an effective, organized way, but Rodriguez remained his principal spiritual director. Words from his notes—such as, “Look for God in all men and serve them in the image of him”—continued to echo in his mind and form the basis of his way with the slaves. Claver knew that he must care for these men and women as if he were caring for Jesus himself. By the time he made his final profession as a Jesuit in 1622, Peter Claver was so immersed in his work that he signed his vows, “Peter Claver, slave of the slaves forever.”

The Language of Love. Whenever a ship was sighted coming into Cartagena’s harbor, Peter Claver could be seen hurrying to meet the slaves as they were being unloaded and herded into small sheds. He tried to win the confidence of these terrified men and women by offering them food, clothing, and medicine that he had begged from Cartagena’s upper class. “We must speak with our hands,” Claver said, “before we try to do so with our lips.” Claver always sought to give them their first taste of Jesus’ love not through sermons, but through direct human contact. He even went so far as to gather those in the worst condition—covered with filth and sores or suffering from horrible diseases—in his arms to comfort them and calm their fears.

Claver depended on a group of seven African interpreters—converts whom he looked on as his own brothers—to speak to the newly arrived slaves. Once he had won their confidence, he tried to introduce them to the gospel message. Using simple pictures of Jesus, the cross, heaven, and hell, he taught them about the promises held out for them in Christ.

Claver’s first goal in ministering to the slaves was to prepare them for baptism. He taught them to make the sign of the cross and pray a very simple prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, you shall be my Father and my Mother and all my good. I love you much. I am sorry for having sinned against you. Lord, I love you much, much, much.” It’s estimated that during the thirty-five years Claver spent in Cartagena, he baptized more than 300,000 men, women, and children.

In all his dealings with the Africans, Peter Claver tried to impress on them their dignity as human beings in spite of whatever poor treatment they might receive from their masters. He wanted these people, so abused by men, to know they were loved by God. When he visited them in the places where they were taken to work, he made it a point to stay in the slaves’ quarters rather than in the masters’ comfortable homes.

Claver also reminded masters that their slaves, as baptized members of the church, had rights and privileges that must be respected. Though he could not overturn the institution of slavery, Claver ensured that the laws established to protect slaves’ rights were observed.

Apostle to All. Not only a “slave of the slaves,” Peter Claver reached out to everyone he could. He converted English pirates and Dutch merchants alike. He visited the hospitals twice a week to comfort the sick and help the dying make peace with God. He cared for patients no one else dared to come near, washing their sores and even kissing them. He visited the prisons, and it was well attested that no criminal was executed without Claver at his side to pray with him and offer him absolution. He even spent time with the lepers of the area, giving them food, preaching to them, and hearing their confessions.

As a result of Claver’s witness, the people of Cartagena, both free and slave, would wait in long lines for him to hear their confessions. He was in such demand that he was known to spend fifteen hours at a stretch in the confessional.

Healings, miracles, and prophecies often accompanied Claver’s ministry, but it was his compassion that touched people even more than these signs and wonders. For instance, over the course of twenty-two years, he regularly visited an obstinate old Moor, befriending him and sharing the gospel with him. Finally, convinced by Claver’s patience and compassion, the man accepted Christ and was baptized.

For the Glory of God’s House. Peter Claver’s devotion to the people of Cartagena cost him dearly, yet Rodriguez had often told him, “The more a man purges himself, the more he will abound in the love of God.” It wasn’t enough to fill his days with works of mercy. He knew that prayer was the only way that he would be able to serve in the humility and love of Christ. Following the traditions of his time, Peter was known to spend his nights carrying a large cross through the halls of the Jesuit residence while everyone else slept. So physical a reminder of Jesus’ death helped him focus his mind more clearly on the price the Lord had paid for him and the love Jesus had for all the people he was called to minister to.

Peter suffered tremendously the last three years of his life. Stricken during an epidemic in 1650, his health was broken. He became an invalid confined to his room, where only a few friends came to visit him. Even the young African assigned to care for him neglected him and often left him helpless for days. Yet Claver constantly thought of the slaves. At one point, he even asked to be carried to the harbor in a chair so that he could greet the arrival of Africans from a previously unknown tribe.

Though they had all but forgotten him in his last years, thousands vied to honor Peter Claver when word of his death spread through Cartagena on September 8, 1654. White and black, rich and poor, free and slave—all gathered to say farewell to this man who had come from afar and spent himself so generously for them.

Shortly before he died, Claver entrusted his treasured notes from Rodriguez to his closest coworker so that Jesuit novices could benefit as he had from the wisdom they contained. Friends in life, Peter Claver and Alphonsus Rodriguez were together declared saints on January 15, 1888, by Pope Leo XIII. Six years later, Leo proclaimed Claver the patron of all missionary efforts among blacks throughout the world.