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Saint Peter Claver - Jesuit Saint

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I thought we would address ourselves in todays' conference to the priest whom brother Alphonsus Rodriguez had sent to the missions, St. Peter Claver who the Church has declared patron of all missionaries to the Negroes. He was born in Catalonia, Spain in 1581 and died on Our Lady's birthday, September the 8th, 1654. He died in Cartagena in South America which is now part of Columbia in South America. A highly gifted person, intellectually, he entered the Jesuits at the age of twenty and was sent, as we briefly heard, to the college of Monteseone on the Island of Majorca, belonging to Spain, where he met St. Alphonsus, who was the porter. During his studies there, he was instructed and inspired by this poor lay brother. He was told exactly where he would work, at what kind of labor he would we would engage in – this is years before he was ordained and had any idea as to what he would be doing. He was sent to South America well before his ordination. In other words, he did his theological studies in South America – this is good to know – ordained in 1615 and there were already seminaries for the training of the clergy, way back then. Cartagena was the center of the slave trade for the new world. In order to appreciate Peter Claver's sanctity, I think we should say something about this slave trade. The immediate occasion for getting slaves from Africa was the fact that large parts of South America – including, of course, Columbia – had rich silver and gold mines. The labor was hard, exhausting and the local Indians were just not strong enough for that kind of work. As a consequence, ships would leave from South America, go to Africa and there there would be people who would sell the Africans to the Spanish slave-traders. We should remember that in Africa, which had been by that time heavily Islamized – that is, had gone Mohammedan – enslavement is one of the positions in the Koran for those who will not accept the religion of Mohammed. Either being heavily taxed or enslaved, or if there is resistance, killed. That background I think needs to be mentioned because slavery or enslavement was already practiced on a large scale in Africa among their own over the spoils of war and there were frequent tribal wars among the African natives. In any case, the Spaniards who were Christians and knew better should never have capitalized on the slavery of the native Africans. They would buy these Africans at four crowns a head. When they were brought to South America, they were sold on the slave market at two hundred dollars a head; so there was big profits in the slave trade. We've got to realize, those who were enslaved were generally the men; the women were often left behind. Men were therefore torn away from their families; husbands and wives separated; fathers from their children – it was inhuman in the extreme. The conditions of those slave ships, writers tell us, are indescribable. Literally huddled like cattle, each slave ship took from six to eight months, pardon me, six to eight weeks, up to two months to cross the sea and imagine the seas in those days. The slave-traders expected at least one third of the slave cargo to die. Corpses were regularly among the living until they were thrown overboard. To give you some idea of the massive number that were thus enslaved, an average of ten thousand reached Cartagena every year, still living. One pope after another wrote, condemned, excommunicated, but, the gold was too glittering and the workers were needed. We get some idea, therefore, of the extreme cruelty that was practiced on these enslaved Africans. The popes describe and we have the statement come down, describe the slave trade as a supreme villainy. The slaves would be baptized but no more. As a result, baptism actually became a badge or a sign of their infamy and needless to say, they hated the religion of those who mocked their slavery by baptizing them. All the clergy could do would be to protest and try to alleviate their sad condition. There was all kinds of opposition to the Church that tried to stop the slave trade or even in trying to alleviate the condition of the slaves; Civil authorities wanted the trade; owners wanted the money, and often the slaves, themselves, rebelled against Christianity which they came to identify with their subhuman condition.

Now back to Peter Claver. Peter Claver, shortly after his ordination, began working among these enslaved negroes. The Jesuit priest who introduced him to this apostolate was Father Alphonso [sic] DeSandival. Didn't you people have a Sandival? in any case, there was an Alonzo Sandival (spelling), who was the first, you might say, teacher of Peter Claver. Sandival had preceded Claver in doing this work. Soon after, Claver decided to vow himself for life. He spent forty years in working among the slaves and he declared himself, and the title has come down over the centuries, the slave of the negroes forever. It is perhaps remarkable that Peter Claver was naturally shy, who lacked we would say, self-confidence. In other words, he was not by nature fitted for the work that he undertook. Once the slave ships disembarked, what was left of the human cargo was then put literally into stock yards like cattle, and there they would be for a week while waiting the next market day when, chained, they would be taken to the market place and sold. And depending on how strong they still looked; how big they were and how able the owner thought they were to do the hard mining labor, they would fetch a corresponding price. The slaves were deprived of every human care. It is reported that Sandival, who was a priest was the one who instructed and inspired Peter Claver, when he heard that a slave ship had been sighted and that another cargo of blacks was being delivered at Cartagena, Sandival is reported to have become deathly sick, unable, humanly speaking to drag himself to watch another shipment disembark. So much then for Peter Claver and slave trade.

Missionary Apostolate

Now something about Peter Claver's missionary apostolate. It was by all odds, one of the most unique in the Church's missionary history. Claver recognized that these people are not to be just baptized; before being baptized they must first be instructed. Claver spoke only Spanish; the negroes spoke no Spanish so he trained seven interpreters and at least one of these interpreters, spoke four African dialects. In other words, Claver went through a lot of trouble to make sure that before being baptized, they would be duly instructed. Because, with almost no exception, the negroes were illiterate, he brought on board ship with him, sacred pictures of Christ, of Our Lady, of scenes from the Gospel. He would especially bring a supply of crucifixes. His hardest task was to restore some self-respect to these people who had been treated so inhumanly for so long. His principle effort (this is Peter Claver's) was to try to show to these naked slaves that they were still loved.

Here are some of the prayers which Peter Claver taught them and he made sure they learned them. "Jesus Christ, Son of God, You will be my father and my mother and all my good" – because they were torn from father, mother, family, their home. They were taught to recite and to memorize in their African dialect "Jesus Christ, I love you very much." They were taught to say "Jesus Christ, I am sorry for having sinned against You." And the one that I think we should memorize – they were taught, these Negro slaves, to pray and keep repeating "Lord, I love you much, much, much." Those were the simple lessons that these illiterate slaves were taught and were told to memorize and recite before they were baptized. On being baptized they would, of course, be given a Christian name, but to make sure they would remember their names, Peter Claver baptized them in batches of ten and all ten got the same name so that if anyone of them would forget his name the other nine would remember.

The lowest estimate reported in Peter Claver's canonization was three hundred thousand baptisms. And we're told the slaves persevered and they made better Christians than their slave owners. My trouble with St. Peter Claver is to know when to stop talking about Peter Claver and start talking about what his spirituality can teach us – it can teach us an awful lot. Between shipments of slaves from Africa, he would work on the owners to get some semblance of mercy, and to their hearts to deal kindly with the slaves. And we may be sure he more than once quoted (which letter of St. Paul – the letter of St. Paul to Philemon, remember the slave owner, remember the slave’s name, Onesimus). Among many touching stories reported was one of a negro who was being approached on the street by a prostitute and the Negro saw Peter Claver in the distance and he told her, 'look, here comes Father Claver' and she ran for the nearest door. Claver was concerned to protect the virtue of his slaves. They intermarried with the Spanish women. Until now, in most of Latin America, I'm told there is practically no person who is a full blooded Spaniard, which is also a tribute to the evangelical zeal of missionaries like Peter Claver. In 1650 an epidemic broke out in Cartagena, Claver caught the illness and then died, as we said, in 1654.

Now something about his spirituality. First of all, there are few saints in the Church’s calendar that teach us more about the virtue of mercy than Peter Claver. There are two pieces of writing I would commend to you. By the time this month is over, you will be getting, if you buy these things, a well-stocked library. Arnold Lunn, The Saint of the Slave Trade, a life of Peter Claver. Well written, Arnold Lunn. And the second is our Holy Fathers' Encyclical, which I trust you've read, 'Rich in Mercy.' Peter Claver tells us, not so much in writing because he was not engaged in the apostolate of yesterdays' saint – Robert Bellarmine was. He was not a writer. His preaching was his work. But, he taught us what mercy means. Our Holy Father defines mercy as love overcoming resistance. He tells us that mercy is costly love. Mercy is love that loves in spite of obstacles, difficulties, natural reluctance, and in this case, positive revulsion. Few canonized if any, canonized Jesuit saint, more clearly illustrate St. Ignatius teaching about the nature of love. "Love (he says, this is Ignatius) love is shown more in deeds than in words. Love does not mean that I like to do what I'm doing, love means that I do it." and make sure there's a big period after that – do it! And the doing is your love. The resistance, the revulsion, the dislike – Claver had all of that. He would admit more than once that it took all his human power to penetrate that den of stench when he climbed into the holes of those slave ships. We need that. And that's why God ever so often raises a saint like this, to teach us who can be so finicky, so particular and in our affluent United States, so spoiled. That's the first lesson. And remember that statement revealed by the Holy Spirit. Learn this. 'I want mercy, not sacrifice.' In other words, the sacrifice, even the sacrifice of the Mass, the sublimest that we can offer, is only as pleasing to God as it is joined with mercy, which means that I love in spite of the fact that nature holds me back.

Second. Peter Claver teaches us and the few letters we have of his and the many conversations that contemporaries of his remember, Claver had a keen sense of God's providence. There are two ways of looking at providence: the more common and the less common. More commonly, we think of providence as God providing the means to carry out or fulfill what we believe is His will. For example, when we take our vows we believe it's God's will and we leave it to God's providence that He will see us through or we undertake some task and we trust in providence that God will give us the means – very true and very important. But there is another and deeper meaning of providence and Claver illustrates that. Providence is also God's way of telling us what He wants done by the circumstances into which He places us. We don't plan on it, but God did. And we find ourselves in a place with a job; with people; in a state of health or ill health; in circumstances that we just did not, maybe could not foresee. Claver recognized God's providence in the fact that there was such inhuman cruelty as the slave trade we've described, that God does not want the sin that those slave traders surely committed; but God did want – it was Claver's logic – others, including himself, to witness this inhumanity and do something about it. In other words, sin, even great crime is part of the providence of God. One of the hardest, in fact I think, the hardest lesson for the human mind, I don't say to comprehend, but even to accept – yes, the murder of a million and a half children in the United States by their unnatural mothers, by abortion. A horrendous crime is part of God's providence so the rest of us would do something about it. That's the second feature of Claver's spirituality – seeing God's providence in the circumstances in which I find myself, even when those circumstances I know are the result of man's sin.

Third feature--obedience. Not all of his biographies bring this out, but it is a matter of Jesuit record that for quite some time Peter Claver was forbidden by superiors to engage in his super-human and surely, supernatural apostolate and he obeyed. I couldn't tell you how many times his example strengthened me. Needless to say, my superiors have not always seen eye to eye with me. Yet, obedience – there's a lot locked up here. We're always assuming what obedience tells us to do is not sinful and in todays' insane world there are even, sadly, religious that are being told by their "superiors" to do things that are contrary to the Church's teaching, but I'm not speaking to that kind of an audience. Assuming, therefore, that no sin is involved, my obedience, even though I'm absolutely sure it is God's work – and Claver was sure, if ever a man was close to God, he was; there is no record of any of his superiors, I don't say being canonized, but even being declared venerable – the one exception was the lowly lay brother who was not his superior. Yet, Claver was obedient. And Claver, as I made sure I mentioned earlier, was a very intelligent man. But, obedience will bless your apostolate as nothing else can. Sometimes when people ask me (with apologies for saying this but it brings out a point) to autograph some book I've published, I honestly look at the title page again to make sure that I wrote this book. It must be somebody else who is impersonating my name. But I can tell you this, I want to think that one reason the Lord has blessed, and I sure hope he is blessing my efforts, is because there are more unpublished manuscripts that my superiors told me not to publish than I will ever identify in public. And I submit my manuscripts to censorship and I'm sure I often know more about what I've written than the one who laboriously finds he thinks are mistakes. But for me, that is obedience. I hope I'm making sense and believe me, I've got a mind of my own. Obedience blesses the work we do for God and that means obedience to a human being who faith tells us is vested with the authority of God.

Fourth. Peter Claver was a humble man and the fourth virtue that I would single out is his profound humility. There are two virtues I'm afraid, except because they happen to be kind of stuck together, we don't usually associate and they are humility and charity. My friends, if you want to practice the kind of charity that the Savior tells us we are to practice if we are to be his true disciples – we must be very humble. Claver's work was humiliating because those with whom we labor, we identify with and you may be sure – I don't have to read this, I know it – you may be sure that of an evening when Peter Claver came back to his Jesuit residence, he stank, what else. It is remarkable how choosy we can be in our practice of charity. We know that Claver took, not just rebuffs, but cruel treatment from these slaves whom he was trying to bring to the Master. You don't dehumanize men the way these negroes were treated without depriving them of something of their humanity and day after day Claver went back for more. In otherwords, now that he is in Heaven in glory, his apostolate seems so romantically sublime but on earth it was dirty and degrading and repulsive and especially, and this is what I wish to bring out, it was humiliating love. All I know is – and I've seen enough sublime charity practiced among people that I have dealt with over the years – all I know is that if we wish to be truly loving, we must be very humble, especially being willing to take it from those in whose favor we spend ourselves in love. All of this and much more we could say about the patron saint of all Negro missions. As a privilege last year of giving a retreat to the Peter Claver sisters, all I can tell you, I felt perfectly at home among people who had inherited the spirit of Peter Claver and may I urge you to pray for yourselves, to pray for greater zeal among bishops and priests to reach the Negroes in our own country. In Africa, thank God, the harvest is flourishing but in the United States, tragically we have not to begun to tap the rich potential of the Negroes. What we need is more of the mercy, faith in providence, obedience and humble charity of St. Peter Claver. St. Peter Claver, pray for us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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