Tag Archives: Peter Claver

Saint Peter Claver and racism

Today the Church fittingly celebrates Saint Pedro Claver, the Spanish Jesuit who spend over thirty years ministering to the slaves brought into the New World at Cartagena, Colombia. He died on September 8, 1654, at 74 years of age.

Over 10,000 slaves arrived in Cartagena from Africa every year – while another 5,000 had died on the infernal ocean voyage. When a slave ship arrived at the port, Padre Pedro and several others, including interpreters, would enter the holds of the ships and minister to those who were dying or extremely ill or wasted away from hunger. They brought food and more. After the slaves were sold, he would try to visit those who were being enslaved near Cartagena.

Though his work appears to be mostly a heroic act of charity, it was not appreciated by the slave merchants and owners who fear he was undermining his efforts. He tried to help the slaves recover their sense of worth. He also worked to evangelize the slaves and, according to some reports, baptized 300,000 after a catechesis adapted to the needs of the slaves.

He called himself the “Aethiporum servus,” the slave of the Ethiopians, which was a name given to the slaves from Africa, though many of the slaves he ministered to came from the area later known as Angola.

Peter Claver’s response to slavery and the slave trade lacks the critique that others rightly made. See this article. Even the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas in the sixteenth century finally recognized that his defense of black slavery was wrong.

Though we should lament that Peter Claver didn’t openly challenge the slave trade and slavery, he reminds us of the need to treat everyone as a servant of God. We who have the capacity to challenge systems of racism can look to him, recognizing that our challenge to injustice should also respond to the needs of those who are enslaved, impoverished, and oppressed.


In Venezuela, the opening prayer of the Mass of St. Peter Claver reads as follows:

O God, Father of all peoples, who filled Saint Peter Claver, priest, slave of the slaves, with a flaming love and an unbreakable patience, to serve his brothers [and sisters], human beings without any distinction of race or social class; by his intercession and merits grant that we may overcome all social discrimination, in order to love all with a generous heart and be the principle of unity among your children. Through our Lord Jesus Christ…

Saints of the Missions

October is the month of the missions in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis proclaimed that this year we would celebrate an extraordinary month of missions to recall the hundredth anniversary of an apostolic letter of Pope Benedict XV, Maximum Illud, which opened up a new understanding of mission.

What I found most refreshing in this one hundred year old letter is the way the pope sought to separate missionary activity from any type of nationalism or colonialism.

“the true missionary is always aware that he is not working as an agent of his country, but as an ambassador of Christ”

Pope Benedict XV praised the work of sisters in missionary countries and also called for others to collaborate in mission. In addition, the pope wanted to see the development of local clergy as an important part of missionary activity.

In our diocese, parishes sent out missionaries to other parishes in the deaneries. Our parish, Dulce Nombre de María, sent about fifty to the parish of Corquín, at the other end of our deanery. I had it easy and went to the US for the mission week.

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But, to help myself pray and reflect on the missionary vocation of every Christian I complied a calendar of saints, blessed, and holy persons who died or celebrated their feast day in October.

But what is most interesting is that the month begins and ends on the feast days of two persons who never went to the missions but are linked to mission.

October 1 is the feast of the cloistered Carmelite sister who died at the age of 24. Saint Thèrése of Lisieux is the patron saint of missions. She wanted to go to the Carmelite foundation in Indochina (Vietnam), but was unable. Yet she prayed for missionaries and had a missionary spirit.

October 31 is the feast of the Jesuit brother, Saint Alfonso Rodríguez, who spent forty years as the door-keeper of the Jesuit house of studies on the island of Majorca. During his time there he was a spiritual guide for Saint Pedro Claver, the Jesuit who spent forty years in Colombia especially serving the slaves brought by the Spaniards to the port city of Cartagena. He owed his mission to the inspiration and advice of Saint Alfonso.

Missionary activity is so often thought of as going to another place, especially exotic lands, to preach the Gospel and, at least today, to witness to the Good News of Jesus for the poor. But Saints Thérèse and Alfonso show us the importance of being a witness to the Gospel wherever we are.

As Pope Francis has often noted, in Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, 120

In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples (cf. Mt 28:19). All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization… The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples”.

The saints show us the way.

My calendar of October saints with quotes can be found here: OCTOBER saints

world without event

Today is the feast of St. Alfonso Rodríguez, a Jesuit lay brother, who died after being the porter of the Jesuit College in Majorca for forty-five years.

I’m not sure if I could be a porter – and probably not for forty-five years. It seems so boring. the only challenges would probably be the beggar coming for help.

But in “the years and years” that went “by of world without event,” Alfonso lived in God’s love.

He inspired the young men who were in the college and became the spiritual director of not a few of them, including St. Pedro Claver who went to the New World and became the “slave of the slaves,” a life much more interesting than Alfonso’s.

Yet both of them saw the hand of God in the daily events of life, in the little details – Alfonso opening the door and greeting the visitors as well as attending to the young Jesuits, Pedro going down into the hold of the slave ships and bringing them medicine, food, lemons, and brandy.

Sometimes we want to do tremendous deeds that get recognized by the world (and by God, of course). But in the little things we find God and can respond to God’s call.

I think of the couple I know who care for their child with Downs syndrome, of the young man here in Honduras who cares for his grandmother and his aunt with Parkinson, and of so many who find God in the little things of life.

They seem to live in worlds without special events, but they find holiness – and challenges – in the daily deeds that call them to love.

Yet God (that hews mountains and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crown career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

“In Honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez”
by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

No smell and a strong stomach

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.