September 9, 2022

Christ the Cornerstone

St. Peter Claver’s life calls us to treat all people with dignity

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“O God, who made St. Peter Claver a slave of slaves and strengthened him with wonderful charity and patience as he came to their help, grant, through his intercession, that, seeking the things of Jesus Christ, we may love our neighbor in deeds and in truth” (Collect for the Memorial of St. Peter Claver).

Today is the Memorial of St. Peter Claver. Our Church honors the memory of this holy man because of his extraordinary love for God and for his neighbor—especially the more than 500,000 African slaves who were the beneficiaries of his pastoral care in 16th-century Colombia.

Slavery is a grave evil that is as old as recorded history. The assumption that one human being can be “owned” by another human being—either because of a supposed natural inferiority or because he or she belongs to a race or culture that is perceived to be of lesser significance and value than the dominant society—is sinful. Slavery is the inevitable result of racist attitudes that fail to recognize the fundamental dignity and human rights of all people.

In St. Peter Claver’s time, slavery was common practice. Although it had been condemned by the Church, the so-called economic benefits caused many civic, business and even religious leaders to look the other way, thereby committing the “sin of indifference.”

It is estimated that more than 10,000 slaves arrived in Colombia each year. The young Jesuit missionary, Peter Claver, attempted to greet each one personally, to offer food and medicine, and to advocate with local authorities and slave owners for more humane treatment.

After 40 years of ministry among African slaves, Peter succumbed to a serious illness. According to contemporary accounts, in the last years of his life he was too ill to leave his room. He lingered for four years, largely forgotten and neglected, physically abused and starved by a would-be caregiver who had been hired to attend to him, but he never complained about his treatment.

A faithful son of Mary, Peter died on Sept. 8, 1654, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in 1688 he was canonized by Pope Leo XIII, who said, “No life, except the life of Christ, has moved me so deeply as that of Peter Claver.”

We like to think that in our country, at least, slavery is a thing of the past, but nothing could be further from the truth. Slavery exists here, and in many places all over the world, to an alarming degree, including in the form of sex trafficking. As recently as two years ago, the bishops of the United States issued the following statement:

It is hard to imagine that, in the twenty-first century, fellow human beings could be exploited and forced to work in the sex industry and other industries. As Catholic bishops, we pledge to use the resources of the Church to help end this affliction. We also pledge to use our teaching authority to educate Catholics and others about human trafficking.

Human trafficking is a horrific crime against the basic dignity and rights of the human person. All efforts must be expended to end it. In the end, we must work together—Church, state, and community—to eliminate the root causes and markets that permit traffickers to flourish; to make whole the survivors of this crime; and to ensure that, one day soon, trafficking in human persons vanishes from the face of the Earth.

If St. Peter Claver were here with us today, he would be actively involved ministering to the victims of this inhumane, and gravely sinful, practice of human trafficking, and he would argue passionately for better enforcement of laws that prohibit modern-day slavery.

Today, St. Peter Claver is revered by Catholics throughout the world. Many parishes and schools are named for this great saint, and many organizations, missions, religious congregations and hospitals bear the name of St. Peter Claver.

For example, the Knights of Peter Claver is the largest African-American Catholic fraternal organization in the United States. In addition, St. Peter Claver’s mission continues today among port chaplains and those who visit ships in the name of the Church.

Also, the Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver are a religious congregation of women dedicated to serving the spiritual and social needs of the poor around the world, particularly in Africa.

Let’s pray that the inspiration and example of this holy man will challenge all of us to move from positions of comfortable indifference to prayer, advocacy and direct action to “eliminate the root causes” and work to ensure that slavery in all its forms “vanishes from the face of the Earth.”

St. Peter Claver, slave of slaves, pray for us. †

Local site Links: