Peter Claver

An excerpt from the website,

Into these yards Peter Claver plunged with medicines and food, bread, brandy, lemons, tobacco to distribute among them, some of whom were too frightened, others too ill to accept them. Claver would say frequently: “We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips.” When he came upon any who were dying he baptized them and then sought out all babies born on the voyage that he might baptize them. During the time that the blacks spent in the sheds, they were penned so closely that they had to sleep almost upon one another and, thereby, freely handed on their diseases …nonetheless, Claver was seen caring for the bodies of the sick and the souls of all.

Unlike many, even among some of the clergy, Claver did not consider that ignorance of their African languages absolved him from the obligation of instructing them in the truths of religion and morals and bringing to their degraded spirits the consolation of the words of Jesus. Claver had a team of seven interpreters, one of whom spoke four African dialects, and with their help he taught the slaves and prepared them for baptism, not only in groups but individually; for the language difficulty was too great for him to make himself understood otherwise. Claver made use of pictures, in accordance with standard catechetical pedagogy of the time, showing our Lord suffering on the cross for them; above all did he try to instill in them some degree of self respect, to give them at least some idea that as redeemed human beings they had dignity and worth, even if as slaves they were outcast and despised. Not otherwise could he ever hope to arouse in them shame and contrition for their sins more perfect than that evoked by the picture of hell which he held up as a warning.

Claver showed them that they were loved even more than they were abused, and that divine love must not be outraged by evil ways, by cruelty and lust. Each one had to be taken apart and drilled, time and again, even in so simple a matter as making the sign of the cross or in learning the prayer of love and repentance that each had to know: Claver taught them to pray these words: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, thou shalt be my Father and my Mother and all my good. I love thee much. I am sorry for having sinned against thee. Lord, I love thee much, much, much.”

How difficult was his task in teaching is shown by the fact that at baptism each batch of ten catechumens was given the same name – to help them to remember it. It is estimated that in forty years Peter Claver instructed and baptized over 300,000 slaves. When there was time and opportunity he took the same trouble to teach them how properly to use the sacrament of penance and in one year is said to have heard the confessions of more than five thousand.

Father Claver never tired of persuading the slaves from the occasions of sin or of urging the owners to care for the souls of the slaves; he became so great a moral force in Cartagena that a story is told of a slave frightening off a prostitute who was pestering him in the street saying, “Look, here comes Father Claver.” And the woman ran away.

As the slaves were at length allotted and sent off to the mines and plantations, Claver could only appear to them for the last time with renewed earnestness, for he would be able to keep in touch with only very few of them. He had a steady confidence that God would care for them and, not his least worry were the slave owners whom he did not deem beyond the mercy of God. They also had souls to be saved, no less than the slaves. To the masters and slave owners Claver appealed for physical and spiritual justice, for their own sakes no less than for that of their slaves.

To the cynical mind the trust of this extraordinary priest in the goodness of human nature must have seem naïve and no doubt could he have known he would have been far more often disappointed than not. But the conclusion cannot be avoided that only the worst of the Spanish masters can be compared with, say, the English slave-owners of Jamaica in the 17th to 18th centuries, whose physical cruelty was no less than fiendish and diabolical by report. The laws of Spain at least provided for the marriages of slaves, forbade their separation from their families and defended them from unjust seizure after winning their freedom. Claver did all he could to provide for the observance of these laws, and every spring after Easter he would make a tour of those plantations nearer Cartagena in order to see how his Africans were fairing under their masters. Claver was not always well received. The masters complained that he wasted the slaves’ time with his preaching, praying and hymn-singing. Seddity women complained that after the Africans had been to Mass it was impossible to enter the church for their bodily odor left behind… the slaves, understandably, did not have exactly perfumed waters to bathe in daily. And when the slaves misbehaved Father Claver was always blamed. “What sort of a man must I be, that I cannot do a little good without causing so much confusion?” Claver would ask. But Claver was not deterred, not even when the ecclesiastical authorities lent too willing an ear to the complaints of his critics.

Many of the narratives both of the heroism and extraordinary wonders worked by Peter Claver concern his nursing of sick and diseased slaves, in circumstances often no one else, black or white, could face. But he found time to care for other sufferers besides slaves.

There were two hospitals in Cartagena, one for general cases, served by the Brothers of St. John of God; this was St. Sebastian’s hospital; and another, of St. Lazarus, for lepers and those suffering from sexually transmitted disease. Both these hospitals Claver visited each week, waiting on the patients in their material needs and bringing hardened sinners to penitence. He also exercised an apostolate among the traders, the sailors and others whom he found in this hospital, Claver also brought about the conversion of an Anglican dignitary, represented to be an archdeacon of London, whom he met when visiting prisoners-of-war on a ship in the harbor. Personal and occupational duties stood in the way of the man being then reconciled but he took ill and was removed to St. Sebastian’s hospital where before he died he was received into the Church by Father Claver.

A number of other Englishmen followed his example. Claver was less successful in his efforts to make converts among the Muslims who came to Cartagena to do business, but he managed to bring a number of Moors and Turks to the faith, though one held out for thirty years before succumbing, and even then a vision of our Lady was required to convince him. Father Claver was also in particular demand to minister to condemned criminals, and it is said that no one was executed at Cartagena during Claver’s lifetime without Claver being present to console the man; under Claver’s influence the most hardened and defiant would spend their last hours in prayer and sorrow for their sins. But many more, rank-and-file citizens would seek Father Claver out in the confessional where he had sometimes to spend fifteen hours at a stretch, reproving, advising, encouraging, and absolving.

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