CNA Staff, Sep 9, 2020 / 13:00 pm
September 9 marks the Feast of St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest who ministered to African slaves in Colombia in the 17th century. The U.S. bishops have invited Catholics to observe the day with fasting and prayer for an end to racism in the United States.
Peter Claver was born in 1581 to a devout farming family in the Catalonia region of Spain. He attended the University of Barcelona as a young man before joining the Jesuits at the age of 20.
During his studies as a novice, Peter met and developed a friendship with Alphonsus Rodriguez, an older lay Jesuit brother who performed menial work but was renowned for his holiness and insight. Eventually Rodriguez told Peter that he felt God was calling Peter to the colonies of New Spain in the Americas. Leo XIII would later canonize both men on the same day, almost two centuries later.
Taking the advice of Rodriguez, Peter volunteered for the new colonies, and arrived in Cartagena, a port city in present-day Colombia, in 1610. He continued his studies there and was ordained a priest in Cartagena in 1615.
By that time, the African slave trade had already been in place for several decades in the Americas, for which Cartagena was a major hub. While there, Peter witnessed the cruelty with which the slaves were treated firsthand.
Moved by their suffering, Peter resolved to work to bring both bodily and spiritual aid to the slaves, vowing to be “the slave of the slaves forever.” Despite his own health problems and the language barrier between himself and the constantly-arriving slaves, Peter threw himself into this vocation with great vigor.
As soon as a slave ship would enter the port, Peter would meet it in the harbor and board the ship to care for the terrified and poorly treated passengers on board, who had made the journey from Africa in diseased and cramped conditions over the course of several months. His first priority was to tend to the sick, and to baptize those in immediate danger of death.
He would also travel the countryside from plantation to plantation, visiting the slaves and tending to both their physical and spiritual needs.
“We must speak to them with our hands,” he once said, “before we try to speak to them with our lips.”