Claverism: Empowering Membership through Committed Service
St. Peter Claver
PETER CLAVER (A Man Who Knew How To Love)
Excerpts from "A Man Who Knew How To Love" Published by The Society of Saint Peter Claver
Peter Claver, the Apostle of the Slaves, was born in 1580 in the little Carlan Village of Verdie, in northern Spain. At the early age of thirteen, Peter Claver decided that he wanted to be a priest. He studied faithfully to attain knowledge while continuing to grow strong in piety and religious observance In 1604, Peter Claver took conscience vows, which united him with the Society of Jesus. With the idea of slavery deeply embedded in his conscious, he thought of himself as a slave of God. Apparently, in secret, he determined that he would become the very slave of slaves. A decisive period in Peter's life occurred when he was sent to the Jesuit College of Montessori on the lovely Mediterranean Island of Majotta. There, for three years, he came under the influence of an eighty-year-old humble and holy doorkeeper, who was later to become Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez. Peter learned the great philosophy of suffering with Christ and the complete renunciation of self while in the spiritual association with Alphonsus Rodriguez. It was because of this positive influence that Peter Claver would later see the wounded Christ in the poor, chained Africans and the lepers of San Lazaro. In those days, the Spanish provinces were required by the Jesuit superiors to provide one young missionary each year for the province of New Granada in Columbia, South America. In 1604, Peter's turn came. He was told to go quickly, without bidding his family farewell, hurriedly, he took passage on a boat laden with gold, silver, pearls, and slaves destined for the- Indies. For the first time, he witnessed the plight of slaves, most of whom were Africans. Brother Claver was thirty years old when he set out for the New World. The five-month journey was no pleasure trip. The ship was crowded far beyond capacity with each passenger responsible for his own bed and food. Drinking water was kept on deck in open jar barrels. Cockroaches and other bugs invaded the food supply, hi addition, practically everyone was seasick from furious storms. With epidemics occurring, life was sheer misery, especially to the poor slaves for whom death became a welcomed friend. When Peter Claver arrived in Cartagena, he knelt and kissed the ground, not so much because he was on solid ground, but because it was the Promised Land to him. The young theological student had, from time to time in his humility, experienced doubts about his calling to the priesthood. His superiors sensed his potential and insisted that he continue his calling to the priesthood. Peter studied at the College of Santa Fe in Bogota where he was to finish his studies. However, the climate proved unfavorable for his health. Later, he was sent to the Jesuit College in Cartagena where Father Alfonso de Sandoval, in charge of the slaves, had asked for assistance. Other than Brother Alphonsus Rodriguez, it was Father Sandoval who understood Peter Claver best and helped him most. At age forty-two, Peter Claver became the first Jesuit Priest to be ordained in Cartagena. It was then, in 1622, that he made his solemn profession and signed the final formula: "Peter Claver, slave of the Negroes forever." The Jesuits in Cartagena had worked earnestly to' bring some degree of comfort to the Africans and to save their souls; it remained for Peter Claver to dedicate himself to the work whole- heartedly. He is believed to have baptized over 300,000 slaves. Father Claver loved them deeply and would never admit any inferiority in them. He won their confidence by approaching them as a brother, not a master. He cared for the sick and the dying in the most unselfish manner. His garments were old and patched; his cloak upon which he carried the sick, the dying and with which he covered the dead, was worn from frequent washing. The old garment came to be known as the "miraculous cloak" of Peter Claver. Heretofore, he was regarded as a Saint by the townspeople. Children were often sent to the window to watch "the saint" pass. He always carried a bag containing the holy oils and a staff mounted by a cross. It was his custom to make the frightened, sick, and thirsty slaves as physically comfortable as possible before he began to work on their souls. Father Claver met every slave ship on its arrival, bringing with him bread, brandy, lemons, and tobacco, which he collected on a house-to-house visitation. "We must," he said. "speak to them with our hands, before we speak to them with our lips."
Peter advised the sick to "Make of life a ladder to heaven." To the prisoners condemned to die, he would say, "Happy are you who know your last day, and happy I should be, I know mine." There was no end to the little miracles attributed to Peter Claver. His life was a shining example) to all those who were to follow the man who "knew how to love." On September 8, 1654, Peter Claver died in utter peace without word or movement. His body, at once, gave forth a delicate sweet odor as his companions clothed it in priestly garments. It was not until 1851 that Pope Pius IX beatified him. In 1888 Pope Leo XIII declared him a saint. The first church named in his honor and placed under his patronage was Saint Peter Claver in San Antonio, Texas in 1889. A million slaves passed through Cartagena on their way to the plantations and mines in South America, and over a third who met St. Peter Claver wore a medal in his memory. For three reasons, Peter Claver deserves the title of "Liberator of a Race." First, because he was able to offer African Slaves in the midst of their misery, the joy of sensing that they were individuals and human. Second, by making himself - a White man the slave of Black men, he showed the fundamental equality in men behind all appearances. Third, because not by mere words but with the sacrifice of his own life, he proved that piety and love still remained in the world; and that he might reduce the load of hatred placed on each slave by so much injustice. These are highlights of the life of our beloved Patron, St. Peter Claver. It is hoped that by knowing his love for his fellow man, we will have recourse to him for strength and endurance in the knowledge that God loves all his creatures and truly cares for each of them.
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