A disciple of Saint Alphonse Rodriguez, Peter Claver became a slave of the slaves in order to take them to heaven. His outstanding charity led him to fulfill everyone’s spiritual needs and combat their moral misery. His feast is celebrated on September 9.
One day as he was in prayer, Alphonse Rodriguez — porter of the school of the Society of Jesus on the Spanish island of Palma de Mallorca already famous for his holiness, was taken to Heaven in spirit. There he saw, arranged in a circle, many thrones of glory occupied by saints dressed in bright royal robes. In their midst was a higher, still empty throne. As he tried to understand the meaning of this vision, the holy lay brother heard a voice telling him that throne had been prepared for Peter Claver as a reward for the many souls he should win for God in America. Ever since, Alphonse Rodriguez tried to instill in his disciple a desire to carry out missions and thus fulfill his great destiny.1
Before his Novitiate, a Member of the Marian Congregation
Some say that the parents of Peter Claver were from the highest nobility, others that they were simple peasants. But all agree that they were very virtuous and that son had been an answer to their insistent prayers. They promised to consecrate him to the service of God. It is also said that little Peter “loved virtue even before knowing it.”
He was a predestined soul. When the time came time to continue his studies at the Jesuit College in Barcelona, he joined the Marian Congregation in order to obtain the protection of his beloved heavenly Lady. Having found among the sons of Saint Ignatius everything his soul had been looking for, he asked to be admitted into the Society and was sent to Tarragona for his novitiate.
From the very first day he showed himself determined to become a saint and a missionary. In his diary, he wrote: “I want to spend my whole life working to save souls and to die for them.”
He was then sent to Palma de Mallorca to study philosophy and met Saint Alphonse Rodriguez. “No sooner had he crossed the threshold than the porter fell on his knees before him, kissed his feet and covered them with tears. Troubled and confused, the student also knelt, and holding the layman in his arms, embraced him tenderly.2 “Interiorly enlightened about the merits of each other, they looked at each other with mutual respect and with the same confidence and love.”3
Peter asked his superiors to take the humble lay brother, then 73, as his spiritual director. That started between them a spiritual kinship that would mark the future apostle of slaves for his whole life. It was on Rodriguez’s advice that Peter asked his superiors to go to South America as a missionary.
On his way to Seville, his point of departure, Peter would pass very close to his parents’ house. But he decided to deprive himself of the joy of seeing them one last time in order to offer a sacrifice to God for the fruit of his apostolate.
During the uncomfortable sea voyage that lasted several months, he made sure to care for the sick crew members. His humility and kindness soon won over the hearts of all sailors to the point that he was able to set an hour a day to explain the catechism and pray the rosary with them. Those rude seamen stopped blaspheming and having quarrels and bad conversations.
A Guardian Angel of Slaves
Cartagena de Indias, in present-day Colombia was one of the most important Spanish trade centers in the New World and its main slave port. It received more than 10,000 slaves per year. They were confined in slums to be later acquired by some lord. Their material misery was compounded by their moral misery.
Slavery was considered quite normal at the time. The slaves were sold on the African coast, sometimes by people of their own tribe or other tribes to whom they had become slaves as prisoners of war. By going to South America they had an advantage that overcame all misfortunes: on the new continent they would be able to learn the true Religion and save their souls.
Peter Claver dedicated himself to the blacks from the beginning of his ministry assisting Father Sandoval, who was already doing that work. He gradually became the father, comforter, nurse and evangelizer of that suffering people. For them he would beg on the streets of Cartagena without any human respect and later distribute the goods he had raised according to the needs of each person.
Apostolic Charity Overcomes Natural Revulsion
Today it is hard to assess the heroism of this apostolate. Those black peoples were very primitive and lived in deep moral degradation and moral perversion, in addition to their brutal passions. They were transported to the New World by ship in sub-human conditions, like beasts. Moreover, some of them would contract diseases while traveling and were covered with wounds and bad odors. One can understand their bitter and suspicious mood as they arrived.
Amid stench, unbearable heat and unspeakable promiscuity the saint rendered services most repugnant to human nature, with love, patience and the charity of a real mother.
Slaves Convert by the Tens of Thousands
Through an interpreter he would teach these unfortunate slaves the way of salvation. He would baptize them and keep in touch with them by every possible means to make sure they would persevere on the right path.
As the saint himself said before dying, in 40 years of this apostolate he baptized more than 300,000 blacks.
On days of precept, Peter Claver would look for these children he begot for the Church and take them to attend divine services.
Seeing them on the street, he would never fail to say some edifying word to speak directly to their soul.
To the elderly he used to say, “Think, my friend that the house is already old and threatens to crumble. Go to confession now while you have the time and while it’s easy.”
Fourth Vow: To Be a Slave of the Slaves
Indeed it was easy for them because, on making his vows Saint Peter had added a fourth, heroic one: to become a slave of the slaves. He was all theirs. For this reason, his confessional was reserved for them. When Spanish nobles managed to have his superior order him to hear them in confession (because of his fame), he would make them wait until he had seen all the slaves. And at times he did his apostolate in such uncomfortable circumstances that he would lose consciousness and they had to wake him up with vinegar.
By a kind of divine charisma he had a supernatural knowledge of the danger his blacks would run in their agony and of the fate of their souls after death.
Resurrected in Order to be Baptized
One day he arrives at a house where a black woman had just died without baptism. The saint kneels beside her and begins to pray, addressing his tears to Heaven to make himself heard. Suddenly the woman comes back to life long enough to show her willingness to receive the baptism and dies again after being purified by that sacrament.
On another occasion, walking on the street with a friend, he suddenly asks him to wait a bit and enters a house. There he finds everyone in tears beside a dying woman. The saint was just in time to hear her in confession and give her extreme unction.
Once, however, he arrived late and the patient had already died. Saddened, he began to pray fervently beside the corpse. Moments later, his eyes light up and he tells those present: “This death is more worthy of our envy than our tears. This soul has been sentenced to only twenty-four hours in Purgatory; let us seek to abbreviate this penalty with our ardent prayers.”
Solicitude for Those Condemned to Death
He was solicitous not only with blacks but with everyone in great danger of body or soul. He took a particular interest in those condemned to death; he would prepare them and accompany them to the place of execution. Once he accompanied a certain Stephen Melon, convicted of robbery and murder. And since the post of hangman was vacant, they sent in his place a Muslim condemned to the galleys. Because the executioner lacked practice, the rope broke three times, causing the convict great pain. Each time, Peter Claver rushed to comfort him with wine and biscuits. Afterward he also helped the Mohammedan, comforting him in the same way. The next day the latter came looking for Peter at the high school to thank him for his charity, and left the place converted.4
Those condemned by the Inquisition such as pirates and heretics also were able to experience his zeal and benefit from his immense charity. He worked especially with the bad in order to convert them. No one could resist his ardent apostolate.
Afflicted with Feminine Immodesty
The immodesty of feminine attire was one of the disorders that afflicted him the most. And this in the seventeenth century, an epoch of long dresses! What would he say of today’s semi-nudity, often even in the house of God?
In spite of this huge activity for the love of neighbor, he kept a regular convent life. He was one of the most observant and a model for others.
In the last four years of his life he suffered from Parkinson’s disease and his feet and hand became semi-paralyzed. Even then he would ask to be carried to the confessional.
Saint Peter Claver died on September 8, 1654 at 74 years of age.
- Cf. Fr. José Leite, SJ, Santos de Cada Dia, Editorial Apostolado da Oração, Braga, 1987, p. 33.
- Frei Justo Pérez de Urbel, OSB, Año Cristiano, Ediciones Fax, Madrid, 1945, tomo III, p. 575.
- Les Petits Bollandistes, Bloud et Barral, Paris, 1882, p. 605.
- Cf. Enriqueta Vila, Santos de América, Ediciones Moreton, S.A., Bilbao, 1968, p. 135.