The Slave of the Slaves: Memorial of St. Peter Claver

Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible.

1 Corinthians 9:19

Imagine being dragged aboard a ship, naked and chained in the darkness below deck, lying helpless for several weeks, through rough seas and stifling heat. There are over 500 of you; males here, females there. You are fed just enough to keep you alive. Starvation, disease, and death are rampant. No one knows where you’re going or what awaits you when the hatch finally opens. Over the centuries of the slave trade, millions of people saw that hatch open only to a lifetime of slavery in a strange New World.

Yet, like a drop of mercy from heaven, hundreds of thousands of these same people saw that hatch open to reveal the caring, concerned face of a gentle Spanish Jesuit. He would come below and find the newborns who were still alive, pour water over them, make the sign of the Cross and pray. He then ministered to the dying, and the dead he had respectfully removed. To the sick he brought medicine and bandaged their wounds. Those too sick to leave the ship on their own he helped carry above. When he got to you, he would clean you, give you food, clothing, and fresh water. He would speak warmly and gently through an interpreter, although no translation was needed for his touch. This was a man fluent in the language of love and by the time he had finished, he had restored a measure of the dignity so shamefully taken away. Every moment, this man acted as if he was your slave and happy to be nothing more.

That’s because he was.

The man was Peter Claver, a 17th century priest and Jesuit who devoted his life to ministering however he could to every slave shackled in the darkness aboard the hundreds of ships landing in the port city of Cartagena. Fr. Claver took to heart the words of St. Paul, who said, Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible (1 Corinthians 9:19).

Father’s devotion to the service of slaves sprang from his desire to imitate the service of his model, the Blessed Mother, to whom he was devoted. As a young novice he was so moved by a pilgrimage to one her shrines that he wrote, “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave, wholly occupied in the service of his master.” He traveled to the New World after hearing that millions of enslaved people died there knowing nothing of Christ. After his first few years serving them, Father signed the document of his final profession to the Society of Jesus with the words, “Peter Claver, slave of the slaves, forever.”

Before the slaves were sent on, Father took whatever time was given him to teach them about Christ. He used pictures, rosaries, crucifixes, anything he could find. He concluded every session by teaching them to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, You are my Father. I am sorry for having offended You. I love You very much. I love You very much.” It is said that he personally baptized over 300,000 slaves.

Fr. Claver continued his ministry for 40 years. Finally, sick, frail and exhausted, he knelt and kissed the feet of his young Jesuit successor and on the day he predicted – the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, September 8th, 1654 – he died at the age of 73.

portsoy-1244572_640Although the slave trade of that era is thankfully no more, slavery still abounds. Who are the people in our own lives, chained in the darkness of sin, feeling helpless, uncertain and fearful of their destiny? Who are those with wounded or even dying spirits, on the brink of losing hope? Who are those starving for affection, for shelter, for safety, for dignity? Will you be the one to open the hatch to descend into their suffering and restore what dignity you can?

Let us pray that we, like St. Peter Claver, may be the slave of the slaves, forever.

St. Peter Claver, pray for us.

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