Across the sea a ship arose on the horizon. It could be a supply boat with some long-awaited news from back home in Spain, or it might be a slave ship, or even an enemy man-of-war. The gentle waves of the blue Caribbean sparkles in the sun as anxious eyes riveted on the distant vessel to read some clue as to its identity. Soon it was clear- no cause for alarm- it was only a slave ship. The avaricious smiled, the humane shuddered and walked away, and the curious were glad to have new opportunity to do what they do.
Meanwhile, a man of importance ran through the streets, totally oblivious to human respect, and knocked forcefully at a door. In a second, a priest opened it. The piercing sunken eyes of the padre read instantly the news in the messenger’s excited face, “It’s a slave ship, Father!” Suddenly the grave expression of the priest changed into joy His whole countenance beamed as if he had seen a vision. “The slave ship is here,” he crescendos, “then the hook must be baited.”
With a precision-made-second-nature-through-routine, the good father gathered together his little army with their provisions and set out to battle. This army was a militia of charity; its commander-in-chief was Father Peter Claver, a Jesuit, the hero of our story. His troops- eighteen Negro interpreters, a Jesuit brother, a pious woman or two, and usually some prominent Cartagenian official. In this case, the dignitary was the governor himself, Don Jeronimo Zueso Cassola, the same man who raced to tell Father Claver the good news. For this extraordinary Jesuit, whose life we are about to study, the arrival of a slave ship was like the homecoming of a long lost son.
But what a retched lot was that of the poor slaves! The agony and misery of this human cargo, crammed into the holds of these galleons, defies an adequate description. For two months, these blacks had been chained and shackled below deck in a floating hell, the men in one compartment, the women in another. They lay there together, in fear, like sardines, naked and bleeding in the cold damp of winter or the excruciating heat of summer, with but one daily feeding of corn and water to sustain them.
One shipload would average between five and six hundred blacks from as many as fifteen or twenty African nations or tribes. Sometimes two men chained together would be from warring tribes, and horrifying scenes of rage would take place. But after a week or two, hunger, sickness and disease numbed these kinds of outbursts. Usually, about one-third of the slaves died en route. Their bodies were hastily thrown overboard to the sharks. If their depraved keepers were particularly cruel, they left the dead as they were, chained to the living, below the decks, where no fresh air could enter to relieve them even slightly. Weeks would go by, before this floating mortuary would relinquish its infectious corpses to the ocean. Of course, such lacks of concern meant a higher mortality rate, and consequently, lower profits; so, though such appalling cruelty did occur, it was not routine. Nevertheless, the “routine” was degrading enough to bring death at sea every year to about five thousand Negroes, and the infamous trade went on for about two hundred years.
Many of the poor Negroes, having exaggerated fears of their approaching fate, took their own lives in despair. They thought that their blood was going to be used to dye the ship’s sails, and that their fat to grease her keel. In some cases, their terror was so grave that the victims’ hearts literally froze and they died from shock. Smallpox, scurvy, and other deadly plagues spread like wildfire below the deck, due to the lack of any sanitation. For two months, the slaves endured a fate worse than that of animals- hanging onto a life that seemed not worth the effort to preserve it- half dead, half insane, and reeking in the filth of their dysentery, vomit, and running ulcerous wounds. If a baby had the misfortune to be taken with its mother, or born during the voyage, it usually died of malnutrition. But the scanty amount of food proved a blessing to many, who, afflicted with disease, would have been consumed more rapidly if they had had a healthier diet.
The slave ship, having been anchored in the harbor, suddenly had its hatch yanked open and the light of the sun flooded in upon the prisoners’ wretchedness. As the suffering Negroes, who looked more like black skeletons than men, strained their eyes, they could see the figure of a white man in a black robe smiling at them and descending into their midst to welcome them with an embrace. It was Father Claver. He first asked them for their babies so that he might poor the saving water of Baptism upon them; then, seeking out the dying, he spoke to them by way of interpreters, and obtaining their consent, he baptized them too. Having finished this, his foremost priority, he turned his attention to the others. Food and water were given to each, and many had to be hand fed, so weak and sickly had they become. Fruits, preserves, and sweet-cakes were distributed to give them strength, and wines and liquors were given them to numb their pain and drive out their extreme despondency.
We have before us a most extraordinary saint- unquestionably the most extraordinary saint who ever walked this earth. We have here a man whose love knew no bounds, who had no fears except of offending God, a man who loved the unlovable. He embraced lepers, kissed cancerous lesions, sucked out poison from running ulcers, washed the unclean and dined in their unsightly hovels, nor did he refrain even from eating food some despairing suicidals had rejected from their own mouths, in his determination to gain their confidence. He did such things not once, not twice, as some saints have done, but nearly every day for forty long toilsome years.Claver took care of Negro slaves. No he didn’t ignore the needs of whites; he just didn’t give them priority. The perfumed class had enough priests to care for them but the blacks had no one. After all, it is a lot easier to love those who are clean than to love those who are not. That is why Saint Peter Claver traveled such a lonely road. The beauty that attracted this apostle was one far superior to that of pretty faces and balanced proportions; it was his God and Savior, Jesus Christ, whom he saw in the most abandoned and the most loathsome. To Claver, the poorest of the poor were truly “the least of His brethren” and heirs to a kingdom not of this world.
Peter Claver was a man with a mission. Another saint whom he had known at school in Majorca, Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, revealed his road in life to him. But what made this Jesuit in Cartagena a saint was not only his detachment from the world and attachment to Christ, but along with that, an astounding ability to reduce potency to act. He never bothered philosophizing about the evils of a system, while planting class hatred and bitterness, as the Socialists of our day do. He was too busy loving to worry about hating. There were others who could solve the problem of slavery; Claver was concerned about the slaves.
Our Saint’s upbringing carries nothing too spectacular about it. One might call him, though I don’t like the term, an ordinary boy- quite above the ordinary intellectually- a little below average personality-wise, though very likable and modest. The family Rosary was an essential part of the typical sixteenth century pious Catalonian rearing in which Ana and Pedro Claver, our saint’s parents schooled their four children.
The future apostle of the slaves was the youngest in his family, so from the start he knew only how to serve. He was born in 1580 in a little town of Spain called Verdu in the diocese of Solfona and he was baptized Peter. His king was Philip II, and his spiritual Father in Rome was Pope Sixtus V.
Misfortune hit him hard and early. When he was only thirteen, his mother Ana died, and within the same month his twenty-year-old brother followed her to the grave. But since his parents had dedicated Peter at birth to the ecclesiastical state, this tragedy only strengthened the youth’s conviction that he must not live for this world. At fourteen, he left home to pursue his vocation at the college in Barcelona.
The college was run by the Society of Jesus- a new order founded by Ignatius of Loyola, who had honored Catalonia as the land of his conversion and labors. His order had already achieved amazing success in its missions, its schools, and in its ability to produce saints. Names like Francis Xavier, Francis Borgia, Robert Bellarmine, Alphonsus Rodriguez, Peter Canisius, Aloysius Gonzaga, John Francis Regis, and Andrew Bobola gave testimony to the good foundation laid by a wise father who was shortly to be canonized. Nor can we overlook the heroic work of the eight Jesuit martyrs of North America, who were contemporaries of our South American saint, as were all the above mentioned, except for Francis Xavier.
Well, the good influence proved too much. The young student at Barcelona decided to do more than just to benefit from the Jesuits’ education. He informed his father of his intention to join the Society. It was 1602 when he entered their Novitiate in Tarragona.
The Jesuits were delighted to receive their new novice, as he had already merited for himself distinctive recognition for exceptional scholastic achievements at Barcelona. Upon his reception into the novitiate, Claver inscribed these words into his notebook as to the reason motivating him to a religious life, “…to become a saint,” he wrote, “and a very great saint. And to save many souls.”
The Novitiate in Tarragona was to our young novice a foretaste of the delights of the blessed in paradise. It reached its climax in a pilgrimage to the beloved Spanish shrine of the Black Virgin of Montserrat. It was here at this holy sanctuary, high on a mountain in Catalonia that the founder of the Society of Jesus signified his complete conversion, by laying his soldier’s sword down at the feet of the famous Madonna. And it was here, as a boy, that Peter Claver had climbed the penitential road of the pilgrims many times with his parents and family, only to do it now years later as a black robed beggar in imitation of his father, Ignatius. The novice was extremely devoted to the Blessed Mother and particularly fond of this shrine. On this pilgrimage, something must have moved him very deeply as he knelt before the miraculous statue, for in later years, if anyone even mentioned the Virgin of Montserrat, he would be unable to withhold his tears, so overwhelming was his love for her. And if his love for her was great, her was no less for him. Claver died fifty years later on the feastday of the Black Virgin, which is also her birthday, September 8th.
Returning from the pilgrimage, Peter took his first vows in the Society and was inspired to write the following prophetic act of oblation:
I shall consider the great oblation assumed by one who has made the consecration of himself to God …I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave, wholly occupied in the service of his master…”
Having finished his first Novitiate, Claver was sent to study philosophy on the College of Montesion (Mount Sion) in the city of Palma on the island of Majorca. Here he met Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez, the man who was to thoroughly inspire him and send him on his life’s mission.
Brother Rodriguez was an old man when he first laid eyes on the new student from Barcelona, but holiness knows no age; it matures and grows, but it is still the Presence of God in a soul. And the eighty-year-old saint of Palma instantly recognized the sanctity he saw in the twenty-five year old Peter Claver. The Superior of the college arranged for the two of them to spend fifteen minutes a day conversing about spiritual things.
Saint Alphonsus was by occupation what Claver was by name. “Claver” means “keeper of the keys.” The holy brother of Montesion kept the keys of the college, for he served as the porter. Whenever the saintly doorkeeper heard someone knock, his face would light up and he would utter this holy ejaculation, “Lord, I shall open the door to You for love of You.” And, with an enthusiasm that could be no greater if it were Jesus Himself waiting, he would keep repeating as his lean and bent body strode down the corridor, “I go, Lord, I go, Lord.”
On one occasion, as out future apostle passed by his spiritual master with a fellow student on their way to recreation, Brother Alphonsus stopped them and said, “Remember, the Three Persons of the Most Blessed Trinity go with you.” Instantly the holy porter was seized by a heavenly rapture and he stood senseless as if in trance. Claver felt as if the Holy Ghost had descended on them as He had at Pentecost. He was unable to take a step. That entire day our young hero was unable to shake off the experience and walked about as if he were not on earth. Experiences like this were fairly common at the college with Brother Rodriguez, for his ecstasies were frequent and often public.
Brother Alonso, as the Spaniards called him, not only held the key to the college, but he also had the key to Peter Claver’s heart. He related to his confessor that in one of his visions he was taken to the abode of the blessed by his guardian angel, who pointed out to him those magnificent jeweled thrones described in the Apocalypse. One of them appeared even more splendid than the rest. The angel said, “This one is for thy disciple, Claver; it is the recompense of his virtues and of the great number of souls he will gain to God in the West Indies.”
After three years, the time had come for Rodriguez to speak more clearly to Claver in regard to his vocation, as the Divine Master had done with His Apostles after His three years with them. Taking his beloved pupil aside, the humble teacher of saints (many great missionaries were guided by Rodriguez) spoke with authority:
“I cannot express to you the sorrow that I feel at seeing that God is unknown to the greater part of the world. Owing to the scarcity of priests who go to preach His name; what tears are not called for at the sight of so many people straying in the wilderness because there is no one to guide them. So many who perish, not because they seek their own loss, but because no effort is made to save them…. How many souls in America might be sent to heaven by priests who are idle in Europe?…. The riches of those countries are prized whilst the peoples are despised. Cannot charity traverse seas already opened by cupidity?…. O, holy brother of my soul, what a field lies here opened to your zeal! If the glory of God’s house concerns you, go to the Indies and save millions of these perishing souls….”
The soil of Claver’s soul was fertile and moist. All it needed was this seed from the wise master, Alonso. One might say that Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez has at that moment planted his own soul into Saint Peter Claver. The young Jesuit petitioned his superiors to be sent to the missions of the West. Only some fifty years before, another Jesuit, Francis Xavier, had set out on a similar mission to the East. Permission was not at first granted and Claver was ordered instead to return to the college at Barcelona for more study in theology.
Before parting from his beloved teacher, Claver was given a unique privilege, a privilege not granted to any other student, of keeping the spiritual notes that Brother Alphonsus had personally written for him. It was this very notebook the dying apostle clasped to his breast on his deathbed, only releasing it for the benefit of novices at the Jesuit Novitiate in Tunga in the mountains of Colombia. The two saints parted company in 1608.
A contemporary description of our saint’s character at that time was given by a fellow student in a letter to a superior at the latter’s request years later: “Modest, gentle, and friendly, he edified us all, trying to please and help everyone. I never heard him complain. Always he spoke of God… He was humble…. very silent and reserved…. In all things he tried to imitate our holy Brother Alonso Rodriguez.” A saint, a very great saint was in the formation.
Meanwhile young Claver’s desire was growing more and more forceful within him to go to the Indies where God was calling him. Again he sent a formal letter asking his superiors to grant his request. Once more, this time most likely to test his obedience, they denied it. Finally, after a third petition, approval was granted. When the saint received his commission to pack his things, he burst into tears and kissed the document as if it were the most precious relic.
The order for departure read “Make haste.” This the jubilant young Jesuit took very literally; so literally in fact, that in imitation of Francis Xavier, he did not even say goodbye to his family, thought the road that led to the port of Seville passed, at one point, within two miles of his home. It was there, at Seville, while waiting to leave for New Granada, that the soon-to-be apostle of the Negroes first laid his compassionate eyes upon the suffering slaves. The fleet of three galleons set sail on April 10, 1610. Interestingly enough, the vessel carrying Claver was named after his patron saint, the Prince of Apostles, San Pedro. The missionaries’ expenses were paid for by the Catholic King, Philip III, who had requested from all his provinces at least one priest to be sent to the recently established kingdom of New Granada (Colombia) across the ocean.
Though the other young missionaries who were chosen along with our saint received Holy Orders before they departed, Claver decided not to take upon himself the awesome privilege. He most probably also desired in this to imitate his spiritual father, the humble “brother porter” of Palma.
After a difficult voyage of some months, the ships landed at the New Granadan port of Cartagena, just below Panama, in the Gulf of Darien. The resident Jesuits, despite the utter poverty of their quarters, gave their newly arrived brothers a hearty welcome, and immediately afterwards Claver was summoned up the Magdalena River to the capital city of Santa Fe de Bogota to finish his theology.
The saint spent one more year in the Novitiate at Tunga, high in the mountains of Colombia. He was sent there principally to recover his health, which had been seriously affected by the damp heat of Bogota; and also that his presence there might be an inspiration to the young novices, much as Rodriguez had been at Majorca. So great was Claver’s love for Tunga that he was prompted upon his deathbed to confer upon that monastery’s novices his greatest treasure- the spiritual writings of good Brother Alonso- which he has guarded jealously though his arduous life. “I entreat of those who read it,” He said as he lay dying, “to pray to God for a sinner, who having such a precious mine at his disposal, instead of drawing from it the pure gold of sanctity, has collected nothing but rust.”
At long last, the pilgrim came home to his city, Cartagena. It was November 1615. A year later he was ordained. In fact, he was the first Jesuit ordained in Cartagena. Father Claver’s first Mass was offered in the poor Jesuit Church at the altar of Our Lady of the Miracle, to whom he was touchingly devoted, never omitting a salute to her when leaving or entering the residence.
Cartagena needed a saint. Lima in Peru had five- Saint Rose, Saint Francis Solano, Saint Martin de Porres, Saint Turibius, and Saint John Massias. To Cartagena, flatteringly known as the “Pearl of the Indies,” all kinds of adventurers found their way. There were fugitives of all sorts, despairing failures of fortune, pirates, bigamists who had abandoned wife and home, money-hungry merchants, retired soldiers, heretics, Mohammedans, all varieties of Europeans, Jews, Greeks, and of course, native Indians, mestizos, mulattos, and last and saddest of all, the black slaves.
With its ideal natural harbor, Cartagena became a stopping point for ships, or galleons, as they were called, on their way to and from the homeland. A galleon would contain, besides new immigrants, badly needed supplies and medicines, and of course, news and mail. The ship would then be loaded up with the extracted gold and silver and other new-world products destined for Spain. This extreme wealth passing in and out of the port was what attracted the avaricious entrepreneurs to settle there. However, it also drew pirates.
Often the English and French seawolves would prey on the Granadan coastline, firing cannon balls and wielding swords, looking for an opportune time to land and loot the city. There were times when the streets of Cartagena and other more viable settlements would flow with blood from such cruel assaults. To protect themselves, the city’s inhabitants, with the added muscle of the slaves, built huge sixty-foot-thick walls to repel such attacks. Out from these massive bulwarks of stone peered formidable artillery batteries and sentinel boxes, where watchmen scoured the horizon for an enemy sail. Forts also lined the harbor.
Needless to say, only the brave called this fortified city home, but even their courage could not dispel the natural fear that hung heavily in the hot air behind the thick walls.
There was another sail that was a dreaded sight for a Cartagenian, a sail that used to make Father Sandoval, Claver’s instructor in the science of charity, “tremble and break out in a cold sweat”- the sail of the slave ship!
If ever there was an ugly stain upon the birth of a nation, it was the stigma of the slave trade in the foundation of the Americas. An institution, true- old as man himself- but, nevertheless, debasingly artificial and oftentimes cruel. In America it was spawned by an inordinate love for money and its material benefits. And then, worse than the slave owners, were the slave traders themselves, hardened speculators in human flesh, who mercilessly hunted down their merchandise, like animals, along the equatorial African coasts and islands that they might auction them off at a handsome profit across the sea. Cartagena was a central stopping point for this inhuman traffic. Most of the major European nations dabbled in the slave trade, with Portugal paving the way, and England soon monopolizing it. However, the monarchs, principally in Spain, did often lash out against the horrid abuses of a greedy and ugly system that they should never even have tolerated.
Nor can the Africans themselves escape the blame. In those days, there was hardly such a thing as racial prejudice. People were patriotic, but color of a man’s skin was just that and nothing more. Africans at that time were abused because they were backward and exploitable, not because they were black. Furthermore, their own chiefs, who showed absolutely no concern for a common hue when material gain was offered to them, often betrayed the Negroes. The slightest incentive from the slave hunters, whether it be tinkling bells or sparkling gems, would move tribal chief to wage petty wars for the sole purpose of selling their prisoners for such unworthy profit. Sometimes a hasty unkind word or some latent jealousy was enough to change allies, friends, or even blood relatives into hateful enemies ready to do battle. Worse still, kings encouraged rivals to crime so that they could be convicted and sold as criminals. Some were so debased as to sell their own children for gain. Then there were the black agents who, under the pay of whites, scoured the coasts with products to sell, often unsheathing concealed weapons in order to take the unsuspecting victims into captivity by force. Africa was literally exploding in violence. An abominable situation indeed, from the black side, no less than from the white.
Slavery is not the subject of this article; however, before going on, the reader should at least divest himself of any false notion liberals may have implanted in him that the system was localized in the Americas. There never was slavery more inhuman, more murderous and more complete over the souls as well as the bodies of its victims than what we have seen in our century in those countries swallowed up by the Communists.
Slavery is not a European import to a perfectly virtuous non-European world. The Africans, themselves, profited by the use of slave labor; the Mohammedans made a religion of it; the Egyptian built their civilization by it; the Greek philosophers were left free to leisurely contemplate reality on account of it; the Romans conquered and disciplined the world through it; the Chinese built walls to keep out foreigners by it; Germans goose-stepped to it; the Hebrews of the Old Testament, though they had laws protecting slaves, profited by it; and the One-Worlders of our day would like to revive it, as they have been attempting to do on a world scale by their monetary power.
It was not until the advent of Christianity that slavery received a deathblow. The dignity of man as redeemed and one with Christ, indeed a member of His Mystical Body, tended to stigmatize the institution as unworthy of a Christian. Saint Paul, who never actually condemned slavery as such, nevertheless elevated the slave as equal in God’s eyes to the free, thereby inflicting slavery with a mortal wound. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female; For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 3:27-28.
In the early centuries of Christianity, slavery gradually began to be phased out. Masters were willingly freeing their slaves. In fact, the Catholic Church, for so doing, granted them spiritual benefits. Saint Melania, a wealthy Roman matron, freed her 8,000 slaves at once. Church law forbade a master to hold a slave who wanted to become a priest. It was not an uncommon thing to see a man who had been a slave give Holy Communion to one who had been his master. In fact, two Popes, Pius I and Callistus I, had at one time been slaves. Pages could be written about the glorious role ex-slaves played in the history of the Church- and not only ex-slaves, but actual slaves, like Saint Felicitas, who is mentioned in the Canon of every Mass along with her holy mistress, Saint Perpetua, whom she refused to be separated from, even in death.
It would be a tangent too labor-some for the continuity of this article to demonstrate at any length how forcefully and wisely the Catholic Church has handled the slavery problem throughout its history. There was hardly a Pope who had to face the problem when it surfaced after about a thousand-year dormation, that did not condemn it. Pius II (whose Patron was a slave) did so in 1462, calling slavery “a great crime.” Urban VIII (1539) strongly opposed it. Benedict XIV lashed out against it in 1741; Pius VII did the same in 1815. Pius IX, who beatified Peter Claver, branded the slave trade “supreme villainy.” The most vociferous of all was Pope Paul III. In 1537, when the enslaving of the Indians was still more common than that of the blacks, this Pontiff thundered out in indignation. “Exploiters of the Indians are instruments of Satan… for the forced servitude of human beings of any race, Christian or not, is a thing abhorrent and damnable.” Unfortunately, the Pope was far away from the scene of the crime nor was his strength in arms, but rather in the faith of his subjects, who chose at times to ignore him.
Claver plunged himself, body and soul, into relieving the blacks in their dreadful circumstance. But it would be inaccurate to label Father Claver as some kind of humanitarian. He was much more than that to the Negroes. He was as Arnold Lunn puts it, a “divinitarian.” The gift he gave the poor slaves was a gift infinitely more precious than sympathy, or even a miraculous cure (which he was quite often the instrument of). His gift to them was eternal life through Faith in a God who suffered like them and on account of them, a God who was crucified.
Every year from twelve to fourteen slave ships entered the port of Cartagena. Many of these poor unfortunates had been torn from their families in their prime of life. Others were lured like animals into anchored galleons by novel gadgets, bells, magnets, beads, and such gimmicks, only to see the huge vessels glide away from shore. To feel the bite of chains clasped upon them and to be shoved into the dark belly of a floating monster, not knowing what fate awaited them. There they languished for two months. Often the skin on the backs and shoulders of those too weak to help themselves would be worn to the very bone from the constant motion of the waves and rubbing of their flesh on the damp planks.Apparently these slave hustlers were the very dregs of Christian Europe. Perhaps their dissatisfaction with themselves was the underlying cause of their cruelty, much like a man who has been a failure takes out his resentment on a dog. Though it must be said that more than a few of these wretches were won over by the example of Father Claver and unburdened their tormented consciences to him.
Father Claver applied himself for seven long years to the slave apostolate before he took his final vows in the Society. His religious profession was written with his own hand and signed thus, “Peter Claver, slave of the slaves, forever.” That “forever” meant thirty more years of a grueling monotony, the accomplishments of which would have sufficed to fulfill the lives of ten apostles.
Though Father Sandoval, the founder of the slave apostolate, had only just initiated his new assistant in the care of the blacks, the veteran missioner was shortly thereafter recalled to Peru; consequently, he had to bestow the entire apostolate upon Father Claver. In all, Sandoval had baptized over thirty thousand slaves; his successor would baptize over three hundred thousand.His face aglow with a supernatural joy, Father Peter would board the slave ship while it was anchored in the harbor, and with the help of his interpreters he would greet the suffering newcomers. Then he and his aides would distribute foods, biscuits, preserves, fruits, tobacco, liquors, and such like gifts to win their confidence and rouse them from their lethargy. The first principle in his instructions to his helpers was centered in the corporal works of mercy. “We must speak to them with our hands before we speak to them with our lips.”
After assuring them that they were not going to be slain, he held up high the crucifix and told them of the God-man and what He had suffered for them. That; they had been brought across the ocean to be freed from their slavery to the devil, and to learn the way to everlasting happiness.
After these preliminaries, there followed a most pathetic scene. The holy priest would bend over, and with his own arms, he would lift up the sickliest. One by one, having covered them with his own cloak, carried them from the boat to wheeled carts parked on the dock for the purpose of transporting the invalids to some miserable shanties. No Caesar, proudly entering the gates of Rome, could have looked more glorious than this exuberant saint, as he triumphantly marched with his Negroes down the main avenue of Cartagena.
The holy man had no time to lose. In a short while, when these poor creatures were fattened up a little and washed, they would be auctioned off in the market place and sometimes end up far away.
He immediately made inquiry…. Which of them had been baptized in Africa? Which had not? When this fact was safely determined, the Christians were separated from the pagans, and they received a Rosary and a medal to be put around their necks. The medal had the Holy Name of Jesus on one side and of Mary on the other. For the Christian women he had dresses. These marks of distinction were a legitimate incentive to the others to embrace their benefactor’s religion, which oddly enough was also the religion of their oppressors.With the sick, Father Claver had no care for precautionary measures of hygiene for himself. He broke every rule in the book. For sure, the last thing anyone would do to avoid a disease would be to kiss the contagious sores, suck out poison and vermin from them, and wash the infections with one’s own handkerchiefs.
In the shanties, his first concern was to pick up the dying off the mud floor onto which many had collapsed, and to place them on mats. He would then wash them with his own hands and dress their wounds with medicines that he previously begged for in the market place. Nor did he cease consoling them with kind words and gestures, for the Negroes all had one beautiful trait in common; they were extremely sensitive to a harsh word or a kind one. And for two months they had heard nothing but abusive speech.
Having baptized the dying and given his first attentions to the sick, the black-robed angel of mercy gathered all the slaves together and begun to speak to them of God. Sometimes these sermons would last for hours, and he did not let the intense heat deter him. Holding up the crucifix on a staff for all to see, he let them behold what their sins had done to their Creator.
“What!” One can hear the experts on the psychology of the underprivileged gasp- “How dare he arouse guilt complexes with these victims of white racism!”
Too bad today’s social experts weren’t around in the seventeenth century to help the slaves. All these poor creatures had, was a fire-and-brimstone Jesuit, and he wanted to save them from an eternal misery. So he spoke of eternity, of an everlasting world of joy and another of pain. A child could understand it, and these blacks were like children. And did not Jesus assure us, “of such is the kingdom of God”?
Claver knew that the blacks were never going to see in their lifetime much, if any, material happiness on earth, certainly not the pie-in-the-sky utopias of Karl Marx and his disciple, Martin Luther King, Jr. These slave needed a cause for joy… real joy… and now! They needed a voice to ease their burden, not to make it heavier with bitterness and anger. Claver couldn’t remove the cross but he could make it sweet. “Your sufferings are great,” echoed the black-robed preacher, “but not as great as you deserve.” “You are better off being a slave in America than a chief in Africa,” he told them. Why? “Because,” he continued, “your sufferings have opened for you the gates of Paradise.” He turned their inevitable suffering into a cause for joy. These blacks had come from a depraved, idolatrous, and cruel civilization. They were sinners in need of repentance and divine mercy. We are all sinners. And suffering is to sin what medicine is to sickness. Arouse guilt? Yes, Peter Claver intended to do just that, knowing as he did, that consciences speak more easily in time of sorrow than of joy.
Claver was a man who knew pain and knew its value. His austerities, which will be described later, would make even holy Job shudder. While he preached, he suffered. He felt he could never advise another to bear a cross that he himself wasn’t already bearing.
The slave of the slaves believed in simplicity. In teaching his pupils religion he loved to use pictures. One he always made use of was a very amateurish, one might even respectfully say ugly, representation of the Judgment. The crude picture graphically portrayed the Crucified Christ with His Precious Blood pouring from His Wounds into a basin. A priest was baptizing Negroes with the Blood. Those who were baptized looked beautiful and happy, while those who were not, looked ugly and were about to be gobbled up by hideous monsters from hell. Though there was a time when his fellow Jesuits criticized Father Claver for his childlike methods of catechetics, nevertheless, for the childlike slaves, the basic-ness of Claver usually hit its mark fast.
In fact, the saint used to spend hours just on the Sign of the Cross alone. He refused to be satisfied with a sloppy performance; each slave had to do it perfectly. Then they would learn the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary.” Prizes were given to those who learned their prayers first. To conclude the sessions he would hold aloft the crucifix and have the slaves join in together with the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Thou art my Father. I am sorry for having offended Thee. I love Thee very much. I love Thee very much,” and he would have them repeat it many times over, “I love Thee much, very, very much,” while striking their breasts, his face and theirs bathed in tears.
Baptism was received with such an emotion of joy as to move the hardest heart. Before pouring the cleansing water, he would ask them three times in a loud voice if they wanted to become Christians. The women, in particular, would shed abundant tears while embracing each other in great joy. And, in their simplicity, they would laugh and hug those whom they found to have the same new name as they, repeating it over and over again like children. What the good priest restored in these unloved and abused people was inestimable …it was their sacred dignity, their divine royalty, as adopted brothers of Christ the King.Nor could Claver forget the Negroes one they were sent away from Cartagena. He kept a strict account of each and every slave he baptized. Often he would take mission trips into the thick of the country to look after his flock. He encouraged those masters who were good Catholics to look after the spiritual as well as the bodily well-being of the Negroes. If the slaves complained of ill treatment, the indignant saint spared no words in admonishing the guilty owners to correct their faults. Due to the tremendous respect everyone has for the extraordinary Jesuit, these warnings always produced the desired fruit.
It seemed that the blacks under Father Claver were destined to keep the straight and narrow. Whether the saint could bilocate or not isn’t known, but whenever the slaves got out of line in the city, the watchful shepherd inevitably showed up to put the fear of God back into them. One thing the Negroes had a craving for was dancing. The saint allowed it, provided it was decent, but quite often the temptation got the better of them to overdo it, and it more often than not led to promiscuity. Suddenly the bearded padre would appear like an avenging angel, whip in hand (the same one he applied unmercifully to himself), and he descended on the wicked party with wrath, terrifying the guilty, and carrying off the devil’s spoils- i.e., drums or other instruments. Nor would he give them back until their owners promised, after confession, to make alms to the leper hospital.
Another excess that occupied his zeal and caused him great anxiety was certain pagan festivals and rites that weak Christians sometimes slipped back into. Some cases involved actual diabolic manifestations. A witness testified to the Office of Inquisition in Cartagena that, on one occasion, he had seen several Negroes floating naked around the ceiling in a house at night after dabbling in this witchcraft. Such demonic phenomena were not uncommon among the uncivilized races. The saint refused to rest until he had thoroughly expurgated these unholy interference’s which, among the slaves, were always connected with the sin of drunkenness. So great was his civil influence that he actually obtained from the magistrates and order forbidding the sale of liquor to the Negroes. A civil rights violation? Yes, I suppose it was. But, if some disadvantaged Negro in now in heaven, because this “tyrannical” Father Claver made an occasion of sin less available to him, and, on the other hand, some Spaniard is burning forever in hell because luring near occasions were for him more accessible, you be the judge who was the more fortunate. As the saying goes, only love can afford to be severe.
The supreme charity of our saint was most vividly portrayed in his solicitude for the sick; and Cartagena, in its infant years, had plenty of sick and very sick people. There were some whose diseases were so repulsive that no one but Father Claver had the supernatural “guts” to nurse them.
Cartagena was hit with five major epidemics during Claver’s apostleship (1615-1654). The major contagion was smallpox; but others. Like typhoid, dysentery, scurvy, and incurable ulcers and cancers wreaked havoc, especially among the undernourished blacks. It was during these scourges that the holy man’s heroic charity was such a spectacle for even the angels to behold.
Six abandoned pagans from Biafara were lying in a shed, suffering from violent dysentery. Someone told the saint about their plight. Immediately he set out to help them, taking with him a free Negress named Magdalena, who used to collect alms in the city for the saint to distribute. She also happened to be from Biafara and Claver needed her as a translator. Arriving at the shack where the men lay writing in the mud, the gentle doctor lifted them up one by one onto some dry mats. His hands and clothing were instantly covered with infectious filth. Moreover, the weather was hot, the stench so unbearable in the stuffy hut, and the sight so repulsive that the Negress took flight. In despair over not being able to speak to the sick men, the frustrated priest called after her loudly, “Magdalena, Magdalena, in the Name of God come back; these are or brothers, redeemed by the Blood of Jesus Christ.” At these words the woman sighed a prayer for help and courageously returned.
Claver’s reputation for enduring the unendurable prompted many a curious admire to accompany him on his visitations to see for themselves if what they had heard of him was true. They saw and they believed. One priest who loved Father Claver dearly and who longed to have his charity went with him to tend a poor afflicted slave. The priest watched as the saint caressed the ulcerous patient like a mother, and then put his lips to the most pestiferous of his sores. Overcome with nausea, the admiring priest had to leave the room, but despite his own weakness, he never ceased praising the heroic virtue of Claver, publicizing it even in Rome.
The saint’s searches for the sick and the abandoned took him frequently to the beaches, where occasionally, some poor aged or hopelessly maimed Negro would be dumped off by a heartless master to die. Here he would find them some kind of shelter and nurse them, bringing them food and medicine. Many of these castaways seemed to be miraculously sustained while waiting for Father Claver to find them, and baptize or confess them before they should die. For fourteen years the man of God served one such helpless old man, visiting him three or four times a week and bringing him food and consolation, until at last he passed away in the blessed arms of his benefactor.
These heroic acts of sublime love for his neighbor were by no means natural to Claver. He was no egotistic eccentric who delighted in doing daring things for the sake of being unique! No, the saint was moved by nothing less than the love for Christ whom he saw reflected in “the least of his brethren.” This extraordinary apostle was attracted to the beautiful things of God’s creation, like anyone else. In particular, he had a relish for good music, and believe it or not, he was especially fond of a new palatal delight called chocolate; however, lest you chocolate lovers get overconfident, the first time he tasted the sweet was his last. He felt it was too delicate a flavor for a religious.
The following incident illustrates the struggle of the saint to overcome nature. A rich merchant once called him to his house to give the sacraments to a dying Negro who was one mass of ulcers. So repulsive was his sickness that no one dares to go near him, lest they contract the infection. Claver went to the door of the room in which the man was quarantined. With him were the merchant and some curious companions. The saint entered, but he was at once so overwhelmed with the loathsome stench and the repellent sight that he recoiled and took a step back. Instantly his conscience accused him, and ashamed of his cowardice, he retired to a corner of the room and delivered himself a brutal scourging, confessing all the while his fault in not loving enough one who was redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ. Finally he approached the man, heard his confession, kissed his wounds, and applied his own tongue to the most offensive. As one of Claver’s biographers put it: “In an age where man could become so subhuman, others were needed who were superhuman.”
We read in the gospels how the hem of our Lord’s garment cured, and by the same Divine Power, so did the very shadow of Saint Peter and the handkerchiefs of Saint Paul. You can add to these the faded and worn cloak of Saint Peter Claver. Thousands of times, during his forty years in the world of pain, he would take off that cloak and use it. To cover the feverish and naked, to wash wounds, to shroud women penitents and to place upon it the abandoned sick, until he could procure them a mat for a bed. There were times when he even raised the dead with it. So filthy did the cloak become that, in a day’s labor, it would have to be washed seven times. However, witnesses testified that, despite the filth, the miraculous fabric always smelled fresh and clean.
The fact that Father Claver was able to open the kingdom of heaven to over three hundred thousand Negroes was due in no small degree to the help of his African co-workers. In all he had eighteen. When a language was unuasually remote, Father Peter would have to speak through a chain of five or six interpreters to get across his message. One of his linguistic gems was Calepino, a veritable genius, who spoke eleven different African dialects. Oddly enough, these men whom Claver used as interpreters were his own slaves. Due to the importance of this apostolate, Rome was willing to allow an exception to its canon forbidding clerics to own slaves. In truth, it was a blessed form of servitude for those eighteen Negroes. It was their privilege to be the slaves of the slave of slaves. His loving solicitude for these co-laborers was so great that if any of them fell sick he would give them his own bed, while he slept on the floor next to the sick man, so that he might be able to wait on him continually. Nor could anyone console him until he had restored the interpreter to health.
By far the greatest damage the devil suffered from Father Claver was in the confessional, though some of us may cringe when we consider his methods of extracting vice. Kind and patient to all, for some of his penitents he prescribed the remedy of hairshirts and scourges. A handsome supply of which was hung upon the back if his confessional; for others that the saint felt had enough of a penance to bear (the crippled, the lame, the aged, the destitute), he had more pleasant gifts: Rosary beads, or fruits, sweets, and similar delicacies. For the infirm he would come out of his stuffy box and often set them on his knees so as to accommodate them more easily, and after he was through, he would invite them all for a little breakfast. Near the confessional he also had holy books with pictures of the Passion, which he insisted that all the people ponder before they confessed. The saint spent every day in the confessional from sunrise until twelve noon.
His Mass, which followed, was deliberately short. He would never let it go beyond a half-hour because he felt that a lengthy Mass in the tropical heat would stifle devotion rather than kindle it. Nor was the saint known to into ecstasies at the altar. Daily his loving eyes would have to wrest their gaze from the Spotless Host lest he should allow his devotion to get the better of him.
During Lent and on the major feat days, he would go about the city inviting all to a thorough house cleaning. His labors in the confessional for the holy season would increase threefold. At three o’clock in the morning he entered the church. No time was too early for these faithful Cartagenians to unburden their souls to God. He stayed there in his confessional until midday. Again at two o’clock he would return after a scanty meal and a meditation. In the afternoon hours he would hear only the confessions of the Negresses, and then, in the evening, beginning at six o’clock, he would devote himself strictly to the men. The fatigue of this Lenten routine was aggravated unmercifully by the excruciating heat, the bite of mosquitoes, and the stinging itch of a full ankle length hairshirt that the holy confessor wore beneath his cassock next to his body. To keep from fainting, he applied periodically a handkerchief dipped in wine to his sweaty face. Sometimes he would have to yield to nature and collapse. The other priests would then carry him to his cell where, when he revived, the saint would refresh himself with a good scourging and some mental prayer. Thank God, that for Father Claver the Church had her seasons and Lent didn’t last forever!
After Easter Peter Claver was back on the road instructing newly-arrived slaves and tending the sick. Besides visiting the slave huts, the zealous father had other apostolates that he lovingly attended to: the hospital of St. Sebastian, the leprosarium of St Lazarus, and the prisons.
The hospital, run by the religious of St John of God, was almost always overcrowded, due to the scourge of frequent epidemics and continual warfare. The religious there used to say that their welcome friend, Father Claver, did the work of forty men. But for every chore he performed, whether it was sweeping the floors, changing linens, washing clothes or dishes, or cooking, the visiting Jesuit, in his humility, always first asked permission of the Superior.
But his main purpose of helping out at the hospital, which he did once a week, was to win sinners back to God. Many a despairing man who had been confined to bed due to the physical consequences of an irregular life would find the supernatural peace through the encouragement and charity of good Father Peter.
Much as he loved to visit the hospital of Saint Sebastian, the leprosarium of Saint Lazarus occupied the tenderest place in Claver’s magnanimous heart. Here he had more opportunities, even than in the slave pens, to satisfy has craving to love the unlovable. For here dwelt the living dead- the very pit of human misery. Two or three times a week the saint would go succor these poor specimens of what were once healthy men and women.
Like an angel of mercy, the black-robed friar would arrive at the colony with the gifts that he had begged in the market place: oranges, bananas, preserves, sweet cakes, and soothing medicines. Sitting on a rock, he would put his cloak over their shoulders, if it was cold, and hear their confessions. Then he would go unperturbed into a more remote area in order to console the more pathetic cases. People who were so horribly afflicted that they were actually shunned by their fellow lepers. How beautifully did his words echo on their souls as he spoke to them of the infinite value of their cross if only they should bear it with joy and patience. Like a mother, he would press their deformed frames to his, encouraging them to endure their purgatory here so that they might cross directly to heaven at death, for paradise was so close.
The very sight of these adandoned lepers was enough to send chills up one’s spine. Whole parts of their bodies were eaten away by the dreadful disease; some had lost limbs, others had loose parts of their faces; some had scarcely any resemblance to a human exterior remaining, and the odor emanating from their many sores was the worst the apostle anywhere encountered. Again the gruesome routine began, washing their infections, kissing their sores, bandaging their wounds, even sweeping up their hovels. Finally, before departing, he sprinkled them with perfume. Many of the lepers could not speak at all; they could only look at him, if they had eye, and touch the tears on his cheeks while they moaned some sort of guttural, “Thank you.”
Peter Claver had another side to him that cannot be overlooked. He loved to entertain. And he delighted in good music. Every major feastday he would get together the great city band of Cartagena, and off they would go to perform for the lepers. Meanwhile some of his close friends would prepare a splendid repast of the best foods and delicacies, and while the orchestra performed, the jubilant lepers devoured a sumptuous banquet. Claver’s dearest benefactress, the Martha of his apostolate, Dona Isabel de Urbina, would prepare the dishes for these delightful festivals of charity.
In addition, the man of God found time to organize a talented black choir. Not a few fellow slaves were converted from Islam by the beautiful liturgical services and heavenly hymns that were sung at the funeral of a baptized Negro. The whites were also affected. Many an ivory cheek ran with tears as the Spaniards listened in wonder to the angelic voices of the slaves resounding from the walls of the Jesuit Church with an incomparably touching rendition of the Dies Irae or a triumphant Gloria.
The Apostle of Cartagena worse a serious face. It was a face that betrayed the worn-out condition of his entire body. But his sullen-ness and even the sadness reflected from his deep-set eyes were not the result of his excessive mortification. That melancholic countenance was first stamped upon him when he was introduced to the real world of human misery. Claver’s problem was that he was sensitive.
The science of the school of Peter Claver was the art of dealing with pain, and of knowing its worth. He felt he had no grace to encourage someone else to carry a cross that he himself wasn’t carrying. To care for the slaves he must totally subject his own flesh and subdue it. This was his main thesis: the flesh could not rebel if the flesh knew only pain. Give it the least bit of pampering and it will want more and more. So Claver gave it none- except what was absolutely necessary to sustain life. Herbs, potatoes, a little rice, or a banana made up his diet; a mat on a board with a log for a pillow made up his bed; only three hours of the night were occupied in an attempt at rest; and then there were his penances.
The man of God scourged himself three times nightly: before prayer, before retiring, and after rising. So severe were the lashings that the neighbors shuddered when they heard the sound of them in the still of the night air. As a dressing for the wounds of the whipping, he wore over them a soothing full-length hairshirt. The gruesome list goes on and on: coarse horsehair cords tied around his toes, arms, and legs; sharp pointed crosses, strapped by more coarse rope around his chest and back; a sharp studded girdle about his lions and thighs. During prayer at night he added a crown of thorns and a rope tied around his neck in imitation of his beloved Savior bound and led to Pilate. When he slept, or tried to sleep, he removed only the neck rope and the crown of thorns. These austerities were part of the saint’s daily nocturnal prayer life.His penances clung to him like the skin to the bones. He prayed, slept, walked, labored, and preached in them for forty long years. Even in sickness he would not ease up. One of the brothers who was ordered to take care of the saint during one of his illnesses, when he saw that he still tormented himself so, exclaimed, “Ah Father, how long is the ass to be thus harnessed?”
“Until death!” the good father quietly responded.
An angel of mercy to the sick, Father Claver was also a seraph of consolation to prisoners. In every possible was he tried to help them, whether by procuring them good lawyers, or even by speaking to judges, in order to win them lighter sentences. To all he brought the comforts of the sacramental religion. There were thirteen prisons in Cartagena. That seems a lot, considering that the city numbered only about twelve thousand inhabitants before 1650. But the criminals came from all over. Most of the more difficult inmates were pirates or sailors who ended up their profligate careers afoul of the law in the golden city of the Indies, although the local element of Spaniards and slaves contributed a fair share to the hands of justice. Fr. Claver treated their needy souls almost the same way he treated afflicted bodies. He brought them anything they desired: tobacco, sweets, good books, cakes, even paper and a pen to write letters with. But when he spoke to them he spoke exactly of what they would expect a priest to speak about: God, heaven and hell. There was nothing artificial about Peter Claver. They knew he meant what he said and what he said was true. No sin, he assured them, was too great for Jesus to forgive in confession. All God wanted was their love in return. The saint made it so simple for their confused and despairing consciences that not one of Cartagena’s condemned criminals went to his execution unrepentant.
Under the chaplaincy of this unique man, whose astounding charity to the slaves had been talked of even behind cell walls, the prisons were transformed into virtual monasteries. The convicts had common morning and evening prayer, litanies and the daily Rosary. At night in death row, instead of cries of despair, was often heard the crack of a penitential scourge which the saint had left behind saying, “Suffer now, my brother, and make the best of the brief time remaining you.”
One poor prisoner, won to God by Father Claver, penned these pathetic words in his prayer book after receiving the death sentence: “This book belongs to the happiest man in the world. Justice delivers his body to death, thereby to save his soul… I have sinned, O my God… My greatest grief is that I cannot repent sufficiently to compensate for my offenses against Thee.” Every criminal, who had to go to his execution in Claver’s Cartagena, went with the holy man of God right by his side. This last mentioned convict was executed by strangulation. He gulped his final breath of air lying in the arms of his confessor.
Though the Inquisition had also been in operation since 1610 in Cartagena, that office dealt in the main with crimes against religion, such as blasphemy, witchcraft (and their was and still is plenty of it in the West Indies), and the preaching of heresy. In the forty years of Saint Peter Claver’s labor, this ecclesiastical office only sentenced two men to death, and sad to say, only one of these incorrigibles died repentant; the other departed the world uttering vicious blasphemies. In this prison there were detained slaves, who re-lived the dark pagan rituals in the hot forest nights, side by side with certain clerics who would not keep their vow of chastity. There were adulterers, Jewish usurers, and occasionally a deranged spellcaster or two. To Claver, they were all important. They all had souls to save. And in particular, he applied himself by word and prayer to regain the abandoned priests to a meaningful and holy life.
People who truly love God never put on artificial airs of piety, folding their hands and bowing their heads, while they shun sinners as if they were to be despised. Claver greeted sinners and even served them. He drew them by his humility and his Christlikeness. As one writer puts it, “Piety only offends when implies a censorious verdict on the impious, for it is preachiness, not preaching, that most people resent.” Of course, at times Claver knew he had to be very direct, as he was on one occasion when he said to a man about to leave the city in the company of a loose-living woman, “It bothers me to see you about to travel with the devil.” The arrow struck fast and so tormented the sinner’s conscience that he returned that very night to the rectory, and in sobs unburdened his sinful life to the ears of the holy priest. Or, again, with women who were in a habit of dressing immodestly, excusing themselves on account of the excessive heat, he would hand them pictures of a woman similarly garbed amid the torments of the fire and demons in hell.
Were we to even put a dent in the accounts of the marvelous miracles performed by our hero we would need a hundred more pages. He cured the sick almost routinely and there were times when he even raised the dead.
The methods this apostle used to restore life or health was often quite out of the ordinary. He made use of the strangest instruments, such as bananas, and dates- the famous ‘dates of Peter Claver,’- whose miraculous power was heard as far away as Rome, and once even an ordinary soaked sponge. Of course, more often than not he made use of much more religious means of intercession, such as relics, holy water (a sacramental that the saint never tired of sprinkling everywhere) and a rough-hewn cross of maple.
Standing out as one of the more stupendous of Father Claver’s miracles was the affair of the raising of the slave-girl Agustina, who served one of the good padre’s closest friends, Captain de Villalabos. All witnesses of the miracle agree that when the man of God arrived at his friend’s house, to cure the sick girl, he found the maiden quite cold and dead. In fact, her body was being prepared for the funeral shroud. The saint suddenly startled everyone by crying out her name: “Agustina, Agustina,” while sprinkling her with holy water. Then he fell to his knees by her bed and prayed for an hour. Her body began to move. Suddenly the girl who had been dead sat up and vomited a large quantity of blood. She stared at Claver and sighed, “Jesus, Jesus how tired I am.” Then, pressed by the others to relate what she has seen, she said that as she walked down a long beautiful road, a white man of great beauty stopped her and told her to return, for she could go no further. Upon careful interrogation, even though the whole household had assumed otherwise, the wise priest perceived that she had never been baptized. After he had performed the sacred ceremony to the great joy of the young Negress and the whole household, she instantly dozed off in death to retrace the steps she had previously taken, this time clothed in the proper wedding garment.
To remain a heretic, a pagan, or a bad Catholic, and live in the same city as Peter Claver, was quite an accomplishment in obduracy. The holy man seemed to touch everyone. His Lenten sermons were so moving that, due to them hundreds of young men, ex-libertines, and widowers, sought entry into the different orders that served the spiritual and corporal needs of the city. Sinners were afraid to walk the streets lest they should encounter the saint in the market place, for they knew he had the gift of reading souls. Even Mohammedans thought him fascinating, and many found it difficult to resist his entreaties for very long.
The most illustrious of his many conversions was that of an English prelate and his Protestant confreres. Outside the harbor in the Bay of Cartagena, the Spaniards were at one time holding on ships some six hundred English and Dutch Privateers whom they had captured on one of their Granadan island colonies which suffered a temporary takeover at the pirates’ hands. These unscrupulous adventurers were among those forces of her majesty’s seamen who were also in the habit of stealing Spanish galleons, laden with Negroes, and transporting them to England’s North American colonies. Hearing of their capture, Father Claver requested and received permission to visit the fleet and offer holy Mass for the Spanish soldiers. The Reformed churchmen looked on in a kind of curious awe as they watched the majesty of a ceremony they had heard so reviled. They were especially amazed at the devoutness of the Catholic soldiers.
After the Mass the saint happily accepted an invitation to dine with them- for he recognized in so doing a tremendous opportunity to save souls. As the affable Jesuit ate and drank nd conversed with the delighted crew, the Englishmen, somewhat won over already by his manners, so contrary to what they had heard of Jesuits, requested that the priest meet their venerable archdeacon, who happened to have been captured along with them. The dignified old man appeared, wearing a long white beard, and Claver, having been apprised of the customary signs of English protocol, saluted the prelate with much respect and offered a toast to his health. Pleased by the courtesy of the Catholic priest, the archdeacon asked him in Latin for a private interview. The two men conversed at length, discussing the Catholic position as opposed to the Protestant. The end result of that was the old man’s conviction that he was in the wrong church. However, the consideration of the problem of his wife and family, who would resent the temporal loss that would go with his renouncing of the Church of England, prevented the weak man from doing his duty to God right away, though he did promise to do so before he died. Despite all Claver’s exhorting, the archdeacon would only respond by requesting the prayers of the priest, and with many signs of mutual affection the two parted company.
Not long afterward the venerable archdeacon fell grievously ill. As he was being carried to the hospital through the city’s streets in a litter, he saw Father Claver and exclaimed “It is time, Father; it is time for me to accomplish the promise I made to God and to you, embracing the religion of my ancestors….” And so he did. So zealous did he become after his conversion that he never ceased exhorting his ex co-religionist to enter the Catholic Church- “outside of which,” he told them “no salvation could be hoped for.” In due time the entire group of the imprisoned reformers followed the example of their spiritual leader and entered the Catholic Church with tremendous enthusiasm. Most of the soldiers went so far as to voluntarily enlist in the Spanish army, or in some other way subject themselves to the Spanish crown, rather than to return to their anti-Catholic homelands. The descendant of these six hundred English and Dutch converts can be seen to this very day in their blond-haired, blue-eyed progeny whom one may see walking the streets of Cartagena.
In the hospital of Saint Sebastian Claver was also able to convert back to the Faith many Dutchmen who had been badly wounded in battle. Some of their fellow countryman insulted both the converts and the priests, but the good Father’s patience and obvious holiness soon won them. One Dutchman was particularly hard, and assaulted Father Claver verbally every time he saw him, shouting in his fury that the priest would never bewitch him as he did the others. For this poor sinner all Claver could do was to pray, for words were useless. And the saint prayed hard. One day, after offering a funeral Mass for one of these converts, he decided to visit the obstinate patient. Strangely enough, when the man saw the saint he called out to him, “Oh my Father! Come to me, my Father!” Claver, like the Good Shepherd, ran to embrace him, and, for a time, tears choked any words either tried to utter. Finally, the happy convert related a vision he had had of the deceased Dutchman, whom the good Father had just buried, with great ceremony. The dead man had assured him that he and his converted fellow countrymen were saved only because they had abandoned their errors and embraced the Catholic religion.
The Mohammedans, however, cost the saint much more effort to win to the true religion. And he did win thousands of them despite all kinds of obstacles. The problem with many of the Moslems was that they were slaves, and consequently, they despised Christianity because it was the religion of their captors. In fact, with them it was a real point of honor not to give in to Claver’s exhortations. But heaven could not resist the sighs of the saint as he stormed the throne of grace to melt their hearts.
One Turkish galley slave had resisted Claver’s pleadings for over twenty years when the saint heard that a sickness had put him at deaths door. He came spoke to him with such an authority and efficacy that the obstinate Turk yielded and begged for baptism. After receiving this wonderful grace, he spoke these remarkable words: “There is no other law than that of Jesus Christ, in which I purpose to live and die. Cursed be the law of the false prophet Mahomet, as well as all those who follow it.” And on and on the stories go. Sometimes the Mother of God herself appeared to certain of the infidels to rebuke them for not listening to Father Claver.
It is a fact as marvelous as it was true, that while Father Claver labored in Cartagena, not one Moslem went to his grave without first embracing the Catholic Religion.
Peter Claver was spiritually mailed to the Cross of Jesus in Cartagena. He never came down from it. This was his city. He stayed there, except to attend to the missions nearby, like Our Lady on Calvary’s hill. Only death could drag hi away. And though death should have come much sooner than it did for a man who had trodden on danger as one would on rose petals, it finally began to move on him mercilessly.
The slaves, the missions, the hospitals, the prisons, the confessional, over and over again, for four decades, the same monotonous routine…”How long shall the ass be thus harnessed Father?” the good brother has asked. “Until death,” he was politely told…. “Until death.”
It didn’t come quickly. It came very slowly. An epidemic had spread again, and the saint began to feel its bite in his own flesh as he returned from a mission to his slaves in one of the outlying villages. In the past, when he came home from such missions, he was usually so reduced physically that he looked like a walking skeleton. This time he stumbled into the Jesuit residence with a body that could scarcely be recognized. The fathers immediately took him to a more suitable room than his own cell to recuperate. As his faithful friend and companion, Brother Nicholas, helped him into a bed, the saint moaned, “This sickness is the reward for my sins. Since I am a bad priest, God no longer desires my services.” Peter Claver, the man of action, was struck with a condition of almost total paralysis. But four long years would be needed before the consuming affliction would liberate him forever.
Four years is a long time to be laid up. With his familiar face no longer visible in the market and byways, people soon began to forget about the man they had so short a time ago nearly worshiped. He had felt the nails, he had habitually endured the bitterness of life’s vinegar and gall, he had been mocked; but as yet Claver was never alone. It was necessary for him to taste the abandonment of the cross. Here in the solitude of his confinement he suffered not only physically but also mentally. His apostolate was over, and dark thoughts tried to upset his peace… he was useless, a burden to others, and deservedly was cast aside by God.
His fellow Jesuits, having been reduced to an extreme poverty, were so busy with their individual responsibilities that days would pass without anyone even visiting him. The Negro nurse who was supposed to take care of him was a crude hard-hearted man who had no appreciation for what this great and burdensome invalid had done for his race. Whereas many of the Negroes used to kneel before the saint and kiss his hand if they chanced to meet him on the street, this savage resented his job and took out his hatefulness on his unwanted charge. Despite Father Claver’s agonizing condition, the brutal attendant, when he had to dress him for a visit to the chapel, would shove him around with no sense of delicacy, yanking the aching victim here and there in frustration, as he clumsily clothed him. The saint would never complain. In fact, he would refuse to allow the good Brother Nicholas to dress him when he offered to do so, but asked rather for his nurse. As for his meals, even these meager refreshments were half devoured by the ungrateful wretch before the saint ever received them. In all this he found more opportunity to suffer. And for the longest time no one but God and the saints of heaven knew what the holy man was going through.
The ways of God seem hard at times. Surely this man deserved some consideration, some appreciation for all he had done in God’s service. Yet he seemed destined to drink the chalice of Christ’s Passion to the bitter end. The miracles, the sermons, the labors in the confessional, the work with all the poor and the sick, the charity for all the Negroes, seemed to be temporarily forgotten by all as the saint silently prayed for death to come.
Only three times in those four years of his last tribulation did he leave the monastery. Once for the Negroes, when having heard of the arrival of a slave ship laden with blacks from a notoriously barbaric area, he had himself carried in a litter to the dock to greet them. When he viewed their deplorable condition and saw the fear in their faces, he broke down and cried.
The next time he left was to hear the confession of the holy laywoman, Dona Isabel who, sick and bedridden, was afraid that it might be her last opportunity to speak to the saint in this life.
The final emergence was on behalf of the lepers at Saint Lazarus. In his humility, in order to avoid the attention of the crowd, who would have swarmed about him had they seen him, he had his lame body strapped to a horse in the hopes that the animal would take him swiftly to the leprosarium through the back roads. The animal took him swiftly all right when, for some strange reason (some witnesses felt the horse was temporarily bewitched), the gentle horse suddenly bolted, galloping wildly through the streets. Were it not for a miracle, the poor Father, to the very end a victim to the devil’s rage, would have been tossed off and perhaps killed.
It was now 1654. The tortured body of Father Claver, which the saint never ceased to submit to the hairshirt and discipline, could barely contain the ghost. He announced to Brother Gonzales that he would die on the next festival of the Blessed Virgin.
One day close to his very last, as he lay in his cell, the saint heard a great deal of rejoicing in the residence. Having inquired as to the cause, he was informed that Father Diego Farigna had arrived with the Spanish fleet, and that this was the priest who had received the commission from the King to continue the work of baptizing the Negroes. Somehow Claver managed to get out of bed and don a cassock, and the next minute his frail and bent figure, with cane in hand, shuffled up to his successor. Falling down before him, the veteran apostle kissed his feet. The startled priest, having been told the identity of the man kneeling before him, immediately lifted Father Claver up and dropping to his knees he likewise kissed the reverend feet of his predecessor with great emotion and confusion.
On September sixth, two Negroes carried Father Claver to the chapel where he received Holy Communion with the devotion of a seraph. As he was being carried back to his room he said to one of the brothers, “I am going to die; what do you desire of me in the next life?” “That you recommend this city and house to God,” answered the brother.
In the evening, the saint was torn with a violent fever that, together with the intense vehemence of his aspiring love, cast him into a motionless state, in which he lay unconscious, his face betraying in its peaceful composer the transport of love he was undergoing. The entire house, having been informed of Father Claver’s condition, came silently into the infirmary. There they stood looking at a man they knew so well, whose holiness, ecstasies, and extraordinary virtues had so inspired them, and yet perhaps not a few accused themselves of not having profited enough by his presence among them. One by one, the religious and the Negroes clasped his feet, which were giving off such a heavenly fragrance, and bathed them with their kisses. Bot the saint knew it not. Nor could he appreciate any human consolation now, as his soul had already begun to break the web that so finely separated him from the vision of his Desire.
The walls of Cartagena silently echoed the solemn news as it was piously whispered in every corner, “The Saint is dying! The Saint is dying!” Suddenly, the sad reality dawned on the multitude, who awakened as from a trance, and they all, black and white, rich and poor, made their way to the Jesuit house. Nothing could be done to keep them away. Clasping his feet in their hands, they bade him farewell amid a profusion of sighs and tears. The Negroes were especially affected; Peter Claver had been a real father to them. Never had any of them been loved as this man had loved them. Lifting his hands, they watered them with tears, crying out that they had lost their greatest friend and protector. This steady concourse lasted until nightfall when the Fathers insisted on sending the people away and closing the doors.
Shortly after midnight, on the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity September 8th, his face, which had the aspect of one ravished in God, suddenly took on the features of a man utterly exhausted. Not long afterwards, at two o’clock, while the assembled community invoked the names of Jesus and Mary, he sweetly surrendered his faithful soul to God. Peter Claver was seventy-one years old. The very day that the Holy Virgin, to whom he was so tenderly devoted, entered time, the slave of Mary and of the Negroes entered eternity.
Though it was God’s will for our saint to be forgotten before he left this life, it was also His will that in death His humble servant be exalted. Scarcely can there be found in the annals of hagiography a story of a saint more honored in his demise. The entire city came out to pay him their respects. First, the governor Don Pedro de Zapata came, and with him the magistrates. They requested that the Jesuits transfer his body to the church where the populace could see him for the last time and properly venerate his remains. The good governor also told the fathers that the city was going to defray the cost of the obsequies by which the people of Cartagena planned to honor their most distinguished citizen.
The priests carried Father Claver in his coffin from the Jesuit house to their main church. But it was not without the greatest difficulty, combined with some serious physical aggressiveness, that the sons of Saint Ignatius (with the help of the sons of Saint Augustine), strove to prevent the swelling crowds from literally tearing the saint apart in their efforts to procure relics. Thousands pressed forward to touch their Rosaries, linens, and medals to his hands and to his feet, which were left uncovered. When the Jesuits finally succeeded in establishing a proper place for the body in the church, the Augustinians came and took over the exhausting job of guarding the casket. For two days the people marched past the sacred remains with great solemnity and emotion, kissing his hands and feet; first the nobles, and finally the Negroes. Three solemn funeral Masses were sung, one of which was under the auspices of the Negroes themselves and their choir; while three orators from different orders tried to outdo one another in extolling the virtues of the man who had so inflamed the city. At the end of the Masses, a group of distinguished men approached the casket. They included the governor, the chief magistrates, and some naval officers. Silently, with watery eyes, they picked up the saint and laid him to rest.Months later, a certain Mohammedan whom Father Claver had spent years trying to convert, walked into the Jesuit Church where the body of the saint lay in repose, and falling down before the Saint’s remains, shed tears of sorrow and promised to enter the true Church. As one biographer put it, “Like the Cid, even the dead corpse of Claver conquers the Moors.”