Today, September 9, we celebrate the feast of Saint Peter Claver (1580-1654), Jesuit missionary, social reformer, and minister to those in need. Saint Peter worked tirelessly for social justice, specifically in regards to the thousands of Africans held captive in the slave trade at that time. He devoted himself to the care of the sick and outcasts of society, including lepers and those no one else would help. Saint Peter is remembered for having said, "We must speak to them with our hands by giving, before we try to speak to them with our lips." Pope Leo XIII wrote, "No life, except the life of Christ, has moved me so deeply as that of Peter Claver.”
“Peter, slave of the slaves forever.” Here in this busy seaport city, in a hot, humid, tropical climate, Father Claver spent the next 40 years of his life ministering to African slaves. He would meet each slave ship as it arrived. Peter would go to the warehouses and bring food, water, medicine and clothing, for, as he said "We must speak to them with our hands, before we try to speak to them with our lips.” When ships arrived in port, Saint Peter never failed to be the first to go aboard, accompanied by his interpreters and carrying the provisions he had been able to beg. He greeted the living, arranged for the burial of the dead and the transport of the sick to hospitals. Having won their sympathy, he went to them regularly with his interpreters and taught them, during several hours’ time, the elements of doctrine, aided by pictures. He put around the necks of each newly baptized child of God, a medal which would thereafter distinguish the Christians from the yet untaught. Saint Peter would teach them of Christ, explain to them that they were loved by God more than they were abused by man, and that evil outraged God. He offered their only consolation: hope in the promises of God. Nearly four hundred thousand men, women, and children received baptism at his hands during his 40 year ministry.
God of mercy and love,
you offer all peoples
the dignity of sharing in your life.
By the example and prayers of Saint Peter Claver,
strengthen us to overcome all racial hatreds
and to love each other as brothers and sisters.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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 toward 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.