St. Peter Claver (1580-1654) was a Spanish Jesuit missionary to Latin America. He is known as the "Apostle of the West Indies" and the "Slave to the Slaves."
Peter Claver was born in Verdu, Catalonia, on July 26, 1580, of prosperous parents. Little is known of his early years. In 1602 he entered the Society of Jesus. Three years later he began to study with Alphonsus Rodriquez in Majorca, with whom he shared a spiritual model of life focused on "suffering with Christ," which he would try to emulate for the rest of his life.
Haunted by a vision of going where he was really needed, Claver left his theological studies before completion and in 1610 went to Cartagena, New Granada (now Colombia). "Why stay in Europe," he asked, "when there are so many men of God needed in America?" He finished his Jesuit requirements and was ordained a priest in 1616 in Bogotá at the age of 35. In his profession he stipulated that he would "never admit any inferiority in the Negro slaves," and so that there would be no doubt of this, he proclaimed himself their slave, adding to his signature ethiopium semper servus (slave of the Negroes forever). One of his biographers states that "there have been few saints so specialized."
For the remaining 38 years of his life, Claver lived in Cartagena, one of the major Caribbean ports in Latin America to which slaves were imported. He had no social program but simply geared his life to the primary needs of the often sick and broken slaves who arrived on American shores. He was not a "revolutionary" priest, intent on changing the fabric of society; he simply cared for the slaves and exhorted the slave masters to be humane.
Claver made himself available to the black slaves. He met them at the port of the city, inquired about their Christian state, catechized those who had had no instruction before crossing the Atlantic, and allegedly baptized more than 300,000. After baptism he tried to nurture his "children," visiting the plantations and mines where the slaves were employed. In accordance with Pauline maxims, he urged slaves to be obedient but exhorted slave masters to be generous. In order to humanize these people hardly regarded as humans, he visited prisoners, nursed lepers and the sick, and worked for the release of some. He often protected fugitive slaves while seeking out good masters for them.
In 1650 Peter Claver became a victim of the plague and lived the rest of his life in almost complete solitude, dying on Sept. 8, 1654. The city magistrates, who had previously frowned at his constant solicitations on behalf of the slaves, ordered that he should be buried at public expense and with great pomp. Only after his death did people begin to realize the true scope of his activities; and the astronomical number of persons he had single handedly baptized. He was canonized in 1887, and Pope Leo XIII declared him the worldwide patron of missionary work among black slaves. St. Alphonsus Rodriguez was canonized on the same day as Peter Claver.
His bones were moved to a glass coffin under the altar of Cartagena's Cathedral de San Pedro Claver, where Pope John Paul II prayed during his 1986 visit. In the cloister adjoining the Cathedral, the room where he spent the last years of his life is open to visitors, along with a series of graphic paintings telling the story of how he helped the slaves.
Quote: Peter Claver understood that concrete service like the distributing of medicine, food or brandy to his black brothers and sisters could be as effective a communication of the word of God as mere verbal preaching. As Peter Claver often said, "We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips."