A former colleague of mine, the late Jesuit Father Joseph MacDonnell inspired this brief biography of today’s saint, Peter Claver, some time ago. Claver lived the dictum of his friend Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, a lay brother who was discerning: “Look for God in all men and serve them as images of Him.”
Saint Peter Claver, Spanish born (1580-1654), as a university student met the Society of Jesus and entered the same in 1602; he
studied philosophy on the island of Majorca at the college of Montesión whose doorkeeper, Jesuit Brother Alphonsus Rodríguez encouraged young Peter. In 1610 he was sent to South America where he finished his studies, ordained to the priesthood in 1616 and then worked for 35 years helping to alleviate the spiritual and physical sufferings of the victims of Cartagena’s despicable slave trade. He referred to himself as “the slave of the slaves forever.”
His missionary vocation had been inspired by Brother Rodriguez (later canonized) who urged Peter: “Your mission is to the West Indies. Why don’t you go there and work for the Lord”? In Cartagena, Colombia he dedicated his energy to the poor people who had been shipped like cattle from Africa to Cartagena only to be sold to the highest bidder. It was said of him that he seemed to be everywhere at once because of the incredible speed with which he went about visiting the sick and instructing the ignorant, even in the scorching sun, drenching rain or biting wind which usually kept many of the inhabitants of Cartagena indoors. When the worn out slaves caught sight of him they clapped their hands by way of salute. Peter managed to convince the local authorities to issue a law that no new arrivals be baptized until they received adequate instruction. He then used this law to delay their departure into a life of slavery by prolonging his catechism classes, much to the chagrin of the slave dealers. Peter also irritated the wealthy citizens who came for the sacrament of Penance and found that they had to wait in line along with the slaves. He would say, “To love God as He ought to be loved, we must be detached from all temporal love. We must love nothing but Him, or if we love anything else, we must love it only for His sake.”
Peter Claver was esteemed as a saint in his own time and stories of his miracles were commonplace. When he died fervor seized the whole city to honor him as a saint. The Jesuit college was besieged by crowds who came to venerate his mortal remains. Slaves came from all parts of the city and neighboring towns. He was declared the Patron Saint of African missionaries.
Today, Saint Peter’s life inspires Catholics to serve the poor as Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxillary.