In our liturgy today we remember St. Peter Claver, the Jesuit priest who ministered to slaves in South America in the 17th century. A native of Spain, he came to Cartagena, Colombia in 1610 and died there in 1654.
Catholic nations like France, Spain and Portugal, early colonizers of North and South America, imported an estimated 11 million Africans from 1519-1867 to work on sugar plantations, mines and farms in the New World. Cartagena was a center of the South American slave trade.
Slaves bought in West Africa were transported in ships that made the journey in appalling conditions; about one third died on the 6 or 7 week voyage.
Peter Claver, enlisting Africans familiar with the various tribal languages and culture, helped the arrivals with food, medicine and the promises of faith. “This was how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and our actions. And in fact, convinced as they were that they had been brought here to be eaten, any other language would have proved utterly useless.”
Many of these poor human beings accepted Baptism from their hands and became Christian.
Peter called himself the “slave of the slaves,” He pleaded with slave owners on local plantations and mines to treat slaves humanely, but Spain needed gold and colonists appreciated the wealth brought by slavery,
Unfortunately, at the time Catholic and Protestant churches alike hoped slavery might bring happiness and cultural enlightenment to the black race. Church leaders condoned slavery and most of the church’s moralists found reasons to justify the institution.The churches were not alone in condoning slavery, most figures of the enlightenment, convinced of the inferiority of African and native Americans, condoned it too.
By the end of the 19th century the major western powers abolished the institution of slavery.
Pope Leo XIII canonized Peter Claver in 1896 and designated him patron of all Roman Catholic missions to the African peoples.
Recent events say racism is still with us.
A letter of St Peter Claver
The arrival of a slave ship
Yesterday, May 30, 1627, on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, numerous blacks, brought from the rivers of Africa, disembarked from a large ship. Carrying two baskets of oranges, lemons, sweet biscuits, and I know not what else, we hurried towards them. When we approached their quarters, we thought we were entering another Guinea. We had to force our way through the crowd until we reached the sick. Large numbers of the sick were lying on wet ground or rather in puddles of mud. To prevent excessive dampness, someone had thought of building up a mound with a mixture of tiles and broken pieces of bricks. This, then, was their couch, a very uncomfortable one not only for that reason, but especially because they were naked, without any clothing to protect them.
We laid aside our cloaks, therefore, and brought from a warehouse whatever was handy to build a platform. In that way we covered a space to which we at last transferred the sick, by forcing a passage through bands of slaves. Then we divided the sick into two groups: one group my companion approached with an interpreter, while I addressed the other group. There were two blacks, nearer death than life, already cold, whose pulse could scarcely be detected. With the help of a tile we pulled some live coals together and placed them in the middle near the dying men. Into this fire we tossed aromatics. Of these we had two wallets full, and we used them all up on this occasion. Then, using our own cloaks, for they had nothing of this sort, and to ask the owners for others would have been a waste of words, we provided for them a smoke treatment, by which they seemed to recover their warmth and the breath of life. The joy in their eyes as they looked at us was something to see.
This was how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and our actions. And in fact, convinced as they were that they had been brought here to be eaten, any other language would have proved utterly useless. Then we sat, or rather knelt, beside them and bathed their faces and bodies with wine. We made every effort to encourage them with friendly gestures and displayed in their presence the emotions which somehow naturally tend to hearten the sick.
After this we began an elementary instruction about baptism, that is, the wonderful effects of the sacrament on body and soul. When by their answers to our questions they showed that they had sufficiently understood this, we went on to a more extensive instruction, namely, about the one God, who rewards and punishes each one according to his merit, and the rest. We asked them to make an act of contrition and to manifest their detestation of their sins. Finally, when they appeared sufficiently prepared, we declared to them the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Passion. Showing them Christ fastened to the cross, as he is depicted on the baptismal font on which streams of blood flow down from his wounds, we led them in reciting an act of contrition in their own language.
O God, who made Saint Peter Claver a slave of slaves and strengthened him with wonderful charity and patience as he came to their help, grant, through his intercession, that, seeking the things of Jesus Christ, we may love our neighbour in deeds and in truth.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.