The Voices of the Saints: St. Peter Claver
Read about a priest who was a real radical extremist
in Christian charity.
Doubleday, a division of Random House -
The Voices of the Saints is a regularly featured column exploring the human side of the saints. September 9 marks the Feast day of St. Peter Claver, Patron of outreach to blacks. His Feast day, which is listed in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, is celebrated liturgically in the universal church.
Saint Peter Claver was an ordinary man in some wayshe was sometimes repulsed by the physical problems and diseases of the slaves he treated. But he was anything but ordinary in dealing with his own feelings of repulsion. At a time when much of the world would not make any effort at all to help these slaves, Peter put himself through anything and everything in order to reach out to them and give them the respect and care which the world denied to them.
The kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence, and the violent are taking it by storm (Mt 11:12).
St. Peter Claver was both a kind and a violent man. He was kind to tens of thousands of slaves whose abused bodies and souls he affectionately tended. He was violent to himself, using force to overcome his revulsion at the foul afflictions of his beloved Africans.
At twenty, Peter Claver became a Jesuit and was sent for training to Montesione College at Palma on Majorca. St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, the college's porter and his mentor, influenced Peter to consider service in foreign missions. He predicted that the saint would work among slaves in Cartagena, New Grenada, which is now Colombia.
In 1610, Peter was sent to Cartagena to complete his training and was ordained five years later. Cartagena was the center of the slave trade in South America, with thousands arriving every year from West Africa. Deeply moved by their unimaginable misery, Peter Claver vowed that he would be "the slave of the enslaved Africans forever."
Day and night for forty years he fed, bathed, and brought medical aid to slaves chained in sickening hovels or hid in the homes of the rich. He brought them bread, lemons, pomegranates, dates, medicines, brandy, tobacco, and cologne. "We must speak to them with our hands," he said, "before we try to speak to them with our lips."
Preoccupied as we are with health and hygiene, we may be appalled at Peter Claver's extreme expressions of personal care. He regularly showed affection to afflicted slaves by kissing or licking their open sores. The following is based on an eyewitness account:
Once he was called to the house of a rich ship owner of Lima, Peru. There was a black man in a corner, separated from all the others, as no one could stand the horror of him. Father Claver arrived as usual, a hand over his chest where he kept his wooden crucifix. He entered the dark room, followed by the master of the house and by four other Spaniards who witnessed the event.
When Father Claver sensed this horrible atmosphere his head swam, he was almost fainting. His will of steel reacted; his companions could see the effort in his face dilating even more the two lines that crossed his forehead. Taking his left arm out of his cassock he uncovered his shoulders and with a whip tipped with small iron balls started to scourge himself, raining lashes upon his body, while he whispered this self-reproach: So you are refusing to approach your neighbor redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ? But it is not going to be like that. You are going to pay for it and achieve by charity whatever needs to be done.
And then came the terrible reaction usual in these cases: he approached on his knees the terrified sick African in his miserable bed, he laid his face tenderly on the ulcers and kissed them. After confessing him, he left him in peace.
With the aid of native interpreters Peter Claver evangelized the slaves and indoctrinated them in the faith. He estimated that he baptized more than three hundred thousand people in forty years, an average of two a day. And he heard as many as five thousand confessions in a year.
In 1650 a serious illness incapacitated Peter Claver. He died in 1654.
Peter Clavers example kindly does violence to our complacency. His discipline dismisses our doing-without-dessert notions of self-denial. And his extremism batters our impersonal notions about social action.
Copyright © 2000 by Bert Ghezzi
Published with permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. Please visit their Web site at www.randomhouse.com.