The Saint of Slaves

Today the church honors a 17th Century pioneer in equality and human dignity, St. Peter Claver, Jesuit, Servant and Reformer.

St. Claver was born in Spain, became a Jesuit priest, and was sent to Columbia and the mission fields of the new world. There he came under the wing of Fr. Alonso de Sandoval, a fellow Jesuit who was dedicating his life to the well being of the slaves being brought in massive numbers to work the Colombian fields and mines.

St. Claver worked on behalf of the slaves from the minute they were forced from their boats in the inhumane slave trade. Their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being became his primary concern, and he felt he needed to live among them to serve them, taking a stand with them against the inhumane practices of the powerful.

He argued through the means available to him that slaves, once baptized, should be freed, an argument that seems nonsensical and colonialist to our ears, but which was probably his best means of persuasion at the time. Fellow Christians, he thought, deserved the rights all Christians deserve.

He was known for following up with slaves after their work days in the mines and fields, and faced great hatred and opposition from slave owners and the rich elite who knew his care threatened their control.

St. Claver also found himself in the jails and work camps, often coming alongside those being tortured during the Inquisition. Though Fr. Claver was sympathetic to the Inquisition’s goal, he felt that everyone left imprisoned and alone deserved a friend and advocate. In his work in the hospitals he was known for showing no racial partiality in his care for patients, which to us sounds like “not enough,” but in the 17th Century was “far too much” for the powerful padding their pockets on the backs of cheap human labor.

Often stubborn and difficult to work with, Fr. Claver had many admirers for his guts, but few friends. At the end of his life he became paralyzed and was left in a small room, neglected for four years until his death.

Ironically, in his time of need he was not offered the same care that he had offered others.

St. Claver is often called the “Saint of the Slaves,” not only because he cared so much for them, but also because he argued passionately for their legal rights.

Certainly we can say that he did not do enough. But contextually, he was a unique voice of opposition and action…a combination that was rare in the 17th Century.

He is a reminder to the church, and to me, that words without actions are just noise in a world drowning in a cacophony of noise.

Social media posts and generalized outrage are no strategy for world change, Beloved.

We must find ourselves living in and with our neighbor, advocating with them, not just for them. We must find ourselves utilizing our power to preach both to and against the powerful.

And we don’t do so as some sort of insurance policy, believing that someone will one day do the same for any of us…they may not.

We do so because it’s the right thing to do, by God.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations