On this day, September 9, the Church honors a Jesuit missioner who was one of the greatest saints of the New World. Saint Peter Claver never left the port city of Cartagena after his ordination there in 1615. His superior in Spain had sent him directives five years before to “make haste” for New Granada (Colombia) to assist another missionary who was overwhelmed by work. One reads about the city of Lima in Peru, which, at around the same time of Claver’s arrival, and not long afterward, hosted five saints: Rose, Martin de Porres and John Massias (both Dominican lay brothers), Father Francis Solano, and Bishop Turibius. Well, Cartagena needed a saint. Being a port city, it drew the worst elements of licentious vagabonds, while also enduring raids from both French and English pirate bands. Claver’s predecessor and instructor in the art of charity, Father Sandoval, had done tremendous work prior among the locals and the slaves, converting about 30,000 souls. In the forty years of our saint’s heroic apostolate (1615-1654) he converted and baptized about 300,000 Negroes alone. Many of these converts, when their masters freed them with the saint’s urging, became the apostle’s assistants — interpreting, catechizing, collecting alms, and feeding and nursing the sick poor. One of these was Magdalena. Here is a short clip to give you an idea of what was one of the more challenging days in the life of the “slave of the slaves.”
“Cartagena was hit with five major epidemics during Claver’s apostleship (1615-1654). The major contagion was smallpox; but others, such as 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.
I encourage you to read the biography of this saint on our website. Even though he did not shed his blood for Christ, like the Jesuit martyrs of North America and many more martyrs in South, his life of perpetual sacrifice is unique in the Church’s annals of dry martyrs. I have never read the like.