According to today’s entry in Butler’s Lives of the Saints: Concise Edition, St. Peter Claver once said, “If being a saint consists in having no taste and a strong stomach, I admit I may be one.”
This Spanish Jesuit, a patron of missionaries, knew what it means to face horrid sights and smells. He spent about forty years in Cartagena, ministering to the African slaves who were brought into port.
With some translators, he met the ships coming into port and brought the Africans medicine, food, lemons, brandy, and tobacco! (What a combination.) He also went down into the fetid holds where those who were sick and dying were chained. There his senses were most surely assaulted by the smells of death and dying.
Though he was not an active advocate of the end of slavery he was a threat to the slave-owners because of his treatment of the slaves. He treated them as human beings, preached the Gospel to them, and even made annual visits to some of the nearby slave plantations (where he made sure that slaves were allowed to marry and stay with their families). He is said to have baptized 30,000 during his years of ministry.
St. Pedro Claver was not one of those whom St. James confronts in today’s second lectionary reading (James 2: 1-5). He did not make distinction among persons and focus his attention on the well-dressed. His focus was the poor slave, dressed in rags, whom so many despised.
Pedro Claver knew and lived what James wrote:
Did not God choose the poor of this world to receive the riches of faith and to inherit the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2: 5)
And so today I ask Pedro Claver to intercede with God to give me more courage to respond in love to the most unattractive of the poor, to the fetid smells of poverty, to the challenges of dirt and insects.
I don’t know how Pedro Claver responded to the smells and the poverty. If his experience was anything like mine, my guess is that he experienced a great joy to be among the chosen ones of God, to whom the Kingdom of God belongs (Luke 6: 20).
Yes there are hard days, but in the depth of my heart I experience a great joy as do many who serve with the poor.
Thanks be to God. who has given me an open heart, even though I still have a strong sense of smell and a weak stomach.