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Posted by on Sep 9, 2008

St. Peter Claver – September 9 – Patron Saint of Slaves

St. Peter Claver – September 9 – Patron Saint of Slaves

Peter Claver was born in Catalonia in 1581. He attended the University of Barcelona before entering the Jesuits at the age of 20. During his study of philosophy in Majorca, he was encouraged by the porter, Br. Alphonsus Rodriguez, to travel as a missionary to the Americas. In 1610, Peter Claver arrived in Cartagena, in present day Colombia.

Cartagena was the center of the slave trade in the Americas at that time.

Slavery has had a long history in human relations. To this very day there are people enslaved in our world. Even within Christianity for most of its history, slavery was seen as one of those realities of life that are simply unquestioned until relatively recently. St. Paul, for example, wrote instructions on the proper behavior of slaves and sent an escaped slave who had become a Christian home to his master, with instructions to his Christian master to treat the slave well (Philemon). But there were no instructions to free him.

The West African slave trade that brought so many people to the Americas in chains had its roots in the Crusades. Pope Nicholas V, in a papal bull titled Dum Diversas (June 18, 1452), allowed the perpetual enslavement  of Saracens and pagans captured during the Crusades, because they were seen as enemies of God and Christianity. It seems ludicrous today, but that’s what people believed at the time. Later, on January 8, 1455, in Romanus Pontifex, he also authorized European dominion over newly discovered lands and the enslavement of non-Christian peoples living there. At that time, the Americas had not yet been “discovered” by Europeans, at least not by a Europe in any way ready or able to begin to colonize them.

Once Columbus and his crew brought word back of their findings, both Spain and Portugal, the foremost seafaring European peoples of the time, wanted to claim lands in America. Pope Alexander VI, on May 4, 1493, in Inter Caetera, divided the Americas between Spain and Portugal. He commanded Spain “to instruct the aforesaid inhabitants and residents and dwellers therein in the Catholic faith, and train them in good morals.” 

Despite the instructions of Alexander VI, military leaders and economic developers (colonists) had begun to enslave the native peoples whom they encountered in the Americas. Many had died of European diseases, against which they had no immunity. By May 29, 1537, Pope Paul III issued another papal bull dealing with the question of enslavement of peoples, Sublimus Dei. In this one, he specifically forbade the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, based on the fact that they are rational beings with souls. He further extended this prohibition to the enslavement of all other previously unknown peoples. Unfortunately, the peoples of West Africa did not count as “previously unknown peoples” – at least it had been know there were people living there – so enslaving them was not strictly forbidden.

Into this context, Peter Claver entered as a young man, not yet a priest. There he met Fr. Alfonso de Sandoval, another Spanish Jesuit who had earlier dedicated his life to the care of African slaves. Working with Fr. Alfonso, Peter Claver dedicated his life as well to this ministry, declaring himself “the slave of the negroes forever.” For the next 44 years, he served the slaves of Cartagena, from the time the ships arrived bringing them chained in the holds through their time of bondage on the plantations and in the mines.

The work of caring for the slaves was not easy. It was not unopposed. It was not welcomed by “the powers that be” of Cartagena. It was not even always welcomed by his superiors or by members of local parishes.

Each month, as the slave bearing ships arrived, Peter Claver went out to meet them, taking food, medicines, and other supplies with him. He went into the holds of the ships and began to care for those who were nearest death, caring for people with diseases such as smallpox and leprosy (Hansen’s Disease). He organized a group of helpers who spoke the various languages of the peoples arriving. They went with him to the slave pens, speaking to the newly arrived and helping to care for them. As the new slaves recovered their health and strength, Peter, Alfonso, and their helpers began to teach them about Jesus and to baptize those who accepted the faith. Despite official Church instructions, many people still questioned the humanity of these captives and opposed teaching them the faith or accepting them into the Church. This opposition did not stop Peter Claver and those who worked with him. They simply worked and prayed harder.

Care for the slaves did not stop at the slave pens. As men, women and children were purchased and set to work in the mines and on plantations, Peter Claver continued to be their advocate. He visited them, celebrated the sacraments with them, admonished their owners to treat them justly, and continued to teach and care for them. He refused to stay with the owners of the plantations and mines. When he visited slaves, he stayed with them in their homes.

Over time, he gained some respect in Cartagena, if for no other reason than that he was consistent and persistent in following his calling. People began to believe that it was because of his work and his presence that they had escaped many potential disasters (think hurricanes, pirates, etc.).  The slave markets were not closed during his lifetime. But somewhere around 300,000 people received care, love, instruction in the faith and baptism through the ministry of St. Peter Claver. Not a bad record!

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