When Pope Francis visited Colombia in 2017, one of his stops was Cartagena and the shrine of St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest, on the day after his feast day. In fact, his final public event in Colombia was a Mass in the evening at the seafront in Cartagena, during which the remains of St. Peter Claver and St. Maria Bernarda Bütler, a Swiss Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, who also worked there, will be exposed.
Peter Claver was born to a prosperous family in Verdu, Spain, and earned his first degree in Barcelona. He entered the Jesuits in 1601. When he was in Majorca studying philosophy, Claver was encouraged by Alphonsus Rodriguez, the saintly doorkeeper of the college, to go to the missions in America. Claver listened, and in 1610 he landed in Cartagena, Colombia. After completing his studies in Bogotá, Peter was ordained in Cartagena in 1616.
Cartagena was one of two ports where slaves from Africa arrived to be sold in South America. Between the years 1616 and 1650, Peter Claver worked daily to minister to the needs of the 10,000 slaves who arrived each year.
As soon as a slave ship entered the port, Peter Claver moved into its infested hold to minister to the ill-treated and exhausted passengers. After the slaves were herded out of the ship like chained animals and shut up in nearby yards to be gazed at by the crowds, Claver plunged in among them with medicines, food, bread, brandy, lemons, and tobacco. With the help of interpreters he gave basic instructions and assured his brothers and sisters of their human dignity and God’s love. During the 40 years of his ministry, Claver instructed and baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves. Claver said, “We must speak to them with our hands before we speak to them with our lips.”
In the last years of his life Peter was too ill to leave his room. The ex-slave who was hired to care for him treated him cruelly, not feeding him many days, and never bathing him. Claver never complained. He was convinced that he deserved this treatment.
In 1654 Peter was anointed with the oil of the Sacrament of the Sick. When Cartagenians heard the news, they crowded into his room to see him for the last time. They treated Peter Claver’s room as a shrine, and stripped it of everything but his bedclothes for mementos. At the age of 73, Claver died September 7, 1654.
St. Peter Claver was canonized in 1888. His memorial is celebrated on September 9.
When we look upon today’s slaves as anything else than fellow human beings and gifts of God, we view them as commodities to be bought and sold. We deprive them of their dignity. These are the poor and vulnerable who are forced, coerced, or by economic choice enter into a very dark underworld that enmeshes at least 21 million people on our planet today.
Like Saint Peter Claver, let us see the “Christ” within each and every person, especially those who are the world’s modern slaves, like many who make our clothes. Indeed, St. Peter Claver, a patron saint for victims of human trafficking, is a saint for garment justice.
O God, who made Saint Peter Claver a slave of slaves and strengthened him with wonder charity and patience as he came to their help, grant, through his intercession, that, seeking the things of Jesus Christ, we may love our neighbor 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.