The saint known as the ‘slave to the slaves’

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In early September every year, the universal church celebrates the memorial of St. Peter Claver, an important figure in the history of the Americas, and one especially pertinent in light of ongoing conversations regarding racial justice and the economically disadvantaged. Claver is particularly revered by African and African-American Catholics because of his longtime ministry with the slave community. Both the Knights of Peter Claver, the oldest and most venerable black lay Catholic organization in the country, and the St. Peter Claver Society, which works with orphaned children throughout Africa, hold up the 17th century Spanish missionary as a patron.

Though originally of rather aristocratic means, Claver was advised by another saint, Alphonsus Rodriguez, to travel to the New World while in priestly formation on the Balearic island of Mallorca (also the home of soon-to-be canonized Junipero Serra). Claver took the advice and traveled to present-day Colombia to work on the wharfs as the slave ships — which Pius IX would one day call “supremely villainous” —unloaded their heart-wrenching human “cargo.”

Claver came to be known as the “slave to the slaves,” offering them food, medicine and kindness. A legend arose that whoever received a cloak from Claver would be healed of the many ailments afflicting the brutalized captives. He also worked tirelessly to keep abreast of the variety of languages and dialects passing through his “mission,” so that he could better instruct them where possible about matters both secular and religious. Roughly 10,000 men, women and children a year passed through his port, and Claver attempted to reach as many as he could, often beginning by spending endless days in the revolting holds of the ships with the obviously terrified arrivals.

Of course, it is painful, but necessary, to study this era in history unflinchingly, and one cannot but be sickened by any support, implicit or explicit, which the colonial powers received for their atrocities. It remains debatable whether Claver’s efforts to beg for the slaves to be treated as humanely as possible by the people who would claim to be the new “owners” of other human beings went far enough in the promotion of justice. Perhaps Claver himself was weighed down by such guilt at some level, because it is often reported that his last days, spent sick with the plague, unwashed and on the brink of starvation, provided an opportunity for him to pray in remorseful penitence for his sins and those he undoubtedly witnessed on a daily basis. But his efforts at showing love through deeds and not platitudes in one of the many man-made hells on which the human race has blighted the gift of earthly creation are surely something to ponder with trembling and inspiration.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Loyola University Chicago.