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Monday, September 9, 2013

Happy Birthday in Heaven, St. Peter Claver, Slave of the Slaves!

by Susan Fox

Ten thousand  slaves poured into the rich port of Cartagena, Columbia, every year after crossing the Atlantic from West Africa in the 1600s. It is estimated that wretched conditions on the ships caused fully one-third of the passengers to die in transit. But those that survived were met with kindness from St. Peter Claver, a Spanish Jesuit missionary.  

The Jesuits had done the work of serving the arriving slaves for more than 40 years when Fr. Peter took up the work and declared himself "the Slave of the Negroes forever." 

As soon as a slave ship arrived Fr. Peter went into its hold to minister to the sick and ill-treated passengers. He brought oranges, medicine, food, brandy and tobacco. During his 40 years of ministry he instructed and baptized 300,000 people from Africa.

The city magistrates of Cartagena largely frowned on his solicitude for the black outcasts, but he -- in turn -- avoided the hospitality of the planters and owners. When he visited a plantation he stayed in the slave quarters. 

The slave merchants weren't his only enemies.The Apostle was accused of "indiscreet zeal, and of having profaned the Sacraments by giving them to creatures who scarcely possessed a soul." St. Peter served the poor Negro without prejudice, and ignored his detractors.

Father Peter became a well-known prophet and miracle worker to Columbia itself, then known as New Granada, giving retreats and speaking publicly from the town square. He therefore was sought out by the fashionable white women of the town. My favorite story of Father Peter is when one of these women complained that his confessional stunk because a slave had occupied it, he told her to confess someplace else. 

After being ill and neglected himself for four years, he was privileged to die on the Birthday of Mary herself, Sept. 8, 1654 at the age of 73, having had a vision of Jesus and Mary just before he died.

The following is written by the saint himself describing his  first encounter with a slave ship. It is from the Office of the Readings of the Catholic Church:


The arrival of a slave ship

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.

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