St. Peter Claver

September 9

Saint Peter Claver dedicated 40 years of his life to ministering to the African slaves that were being sold in the Kingdom of New Granada (present day Colombia). When he made his final profession as a member of the Society of Jesus in 1622, by which time he had been ministering to the slaves for 12 years, he declared himself, “slave of the Africans forever.” He made himself all things to the men and women he served. Without going into the details of his biography, which is readily available on-line, I would like to point out several aspects of his life and ministry that struck me in a particular way.

In the first place, he dedicated himself tirelessly and intensely to serve people who could do nothing for him in return. The slaves arrived to Cartagena in a miserable state, and were considered hardly human by most of society – hence their ability to receive the sacraments was often questioned. Peter knew that these were men and women destined to a difficult life and an anonymous death. He knew that he would never see his efforts to evangelize and catechize them carried on through any kind of institution. These people were not going to found schools or institutions of any kind that might further his efforts. These people would receive his teaching and die slaves. These truly were among the “many last” of the Gospel, who will be first in the Kingdom. His concern was never with what the people he served would be able to DO; it was always about who they WERE. This generous and selfless dedication is for me a sign of Peter’s celibate love for his bride, the Church, embodied in the persons of the slaves, who in so many ways would fit the description given in Mt. 25 of those we are called to love.

Peter had declared himself a slave to the slaves, and he practiced what he preached. He made his declaration good by devoting himself entirely to his people. This is the true sense of authority of which Christ speaks in the Gospel. Peter very literally made himself the servant of all. Hence he shared in a special way in the headship of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served but to serve. This is the genuine practice of the masculine, fatherly gift of authority that makes the Church grow in a very real and fruitful way. Christian authority is service, and our Church and world cry out for this kind of leadership.

Peter made himself all things to his people by listening attentively to their needs. He would meet the slave ships as they arrived at the wharf, board them immediately, and begin attending to the slaves packed into the cargo holds. He would lend them his cloak. He would bring them medicine, food, brandy, lemons and tobacco. The simplest and most basic of things, but what was needed at the moment. He attended fistly to their bodily needs, and thus made them understand that they had a friend and advocate. His attention to their physical needs demonstrated the reality of what Pope Saint John Paul II would explain many years later: to touch the body is to touch the person. Peter touched hearts by attending to bodies. He made them understand that they were truly somebody.

Peter was undaunted by the practical difficulties of his ministry. The slaves spoke many different dialects, so communication was always a challenge, but for Peter never an obstacle. Ministering to them was looked down upon by many in society, and so Peter was criticized from within the Christian community itself. He was disliked by the slave traders for his constant advocating for the basic humanity of the slaves, and hence his own safety was often jeopardized. None of this deterred him. This undaunted courage is to me a sign of Peter’s unconditional, polarizing love for those he served. He made himself a gift to them, and hence his fatigue became a cause of joy.

Lastly, there is an element of Peter’s life that was very instructive for me: he was not afraid to listen to and learn from his confreres. He undertook the ministry in New Spain in great part due to the counsel of Alphonsus Rodriguez who was a lay brother and the porter of the house where Peter studied in Palma de Mallorca. Alphonsus himself was later canonized. Nevertheless, taking his advice to travel to New Spain required humility and courage on the part of Peter. But this was not the only example of learning from others; Peter also submitted to the mentoring of Alonso de Sandoval who had preceded him in the ministry to the slaves. The ministry is never an isolated effort, and holiness of life begets holiness. Before he could be a good father to his people, Peter had to learn to be a brother to his confreres.

Humility, courage, genuine fatherly authority and fraternal affection and support marked Peter’s life and ministry in a decisive way. Praise God for the life of this man whose seemingly superhuman achievements flowed from his deep connection with his own humanity.

To download a PDF version of this homily, click here: St. Peter Claver

Father Daniel Hennessy  is a priest of the Legionaries of Christ. He currently serves as the Director of the Patron of the Arts at the Vatican Museums in Rome. Father Daniel has attended the Theology of the Body I and II courses as a participant and as a chaplain. He also has attended the In the Person of Christ priest retreats with the Theology of the Body Institute.

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