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…