During RCIA, it was mandatory that catechumens find a confirmation saint. This was advised that this saint should be someone I can ask for intercession, a man or woman that modeled heroic virtue/martyr and ultimately will lead me closer to Jesus Christ.
I hadn’t really thought about a figure that was important. Sure, I was very familiar with Pope St. John Paul II but besides him, I didn’t know many saints.
Prior to embracing the Sacrament of Confirmation at Easter Vigil, I purchased some entry-level Catholic books: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Adult Confirmation Catechism, Catholicism for Dummies, and 365 Saints.
By this time, I was intellectually beyond RCIA but I bought these books hoping that I would grow more spiritually to the Church.
More importantly, I was hoping that I’d find a connection with the saints.
Usually, with the Saints book, I’d flip day to day or month to month and immerse myself on their accounts. I don’t recall reading anyone that made an impression on me.
When I got to September, all that changed!
I was first introduced to St. Peter Claver by his brief biography on September 9th. The book gave a roughly 500-word snippet of his life, ministry, and legacy.
After I read it, I was completely in love; I knew I had found my saint. I was surprised to learn that there was a biography written. Eventually, during that year, I read St. Peter Claver: Apostles to the Negroes and fell even more in love with this pioneering saint!
Moreover, I felt the connection to someone that I knew would have a heartfelt impact on my walk with Christ.
I like to think of St. Peter Claver as the St.Francis Xavier of the West Indies. St. Francis pioneered the mission field in Japan by bringing Christianity to the natives and the same could be said about Claver.
Often called the Apostle to the Negroes or Apostle to the West Indies, this holy servant of God worked with evangelizing African slaves at the height of the Atlantic slave trade during early to the mid 17th century in Cartegena, Columbia.
His missionary journey to the Americas came from the direction of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit porter, who urged Claver to begin his missionary work in Columbia. He credited the power of Alphonsus’ wise guidance for his apostolate. Both of these men were greatly fond of each other. Even though they were hundreds of miles away, they still managed to correspond. Eventually, both saints were canonized together by Pope Leo XIII in 1888 which demonstrates further their inseparable bond.
Light in the Darkness
During the Atlantic slave trade, Cartegena, Columbia received close to ten thousand slaves annually. This created an interest in evangelization for many. Before Peter Claver’s apostolate began, Father Alonso de Sandoval had devoted many decades to the slave missions. This gave Claver a foundation to build upon as he began his missionary work.
The slave ships traveled weeks from the West African coast. Many of the slaves had to be thrown overboard because they died. The remaining slaves that made it to the Americas suffered extreme conditions on the slave boats such as the flu or smallpox, the putrid stench of human excrement, and overall poor sanitation. Moreover, Colombia was like an oven. With its tropical environment, bugs, and overwhelming heat, this made the conditions worse for newly arrived slaves.
But this was no problem for Peter Claver. He boldly walked in the slave ship. His workers gagged and were disgusted by the loud stench and unbearable sights, so they couldn’t last long like the compassionate saint.
Peter Claver would tend to their initial sickness as they traveled month-long treks from Africa. He would provide them with food, drink, and other nourishment he had available. Sometimes he would bend down and kiss the sores of the slaves to embrace them.
After the slaves got settled, he started attending to their spiritual needs. He would give them catechesis and eventually confer upon them the sacraments. Many of the slave owners hated Peter’s work toward the slaves, but he steadily worked with them.
Not only was Peter Claver dedicated to West African slaves, but he also evangelized Muslims, merchants from various parts of Europe, and the local town people. In fact, his relationship with the townspeople was very impressive. He was present for many inmates who would suffer capital punishment. The inmates preferred to be in the care of Claver as they saw it was an act of love. He would provide opportunities to hear their confession, perform penances, and have a Mass said for them.
Peter Claver was an all-around model on how to effectively live out Jesus Christ in actions and words. His mortifications and austerities were many, but yet all were performed to live a crucified life. The more pressure he exerted on his life, the more he wanted to experience the life of Christ.
His prayer life was important too. He saw prayer as a true dependency on God. When the world was asleep, Peter Claver would devote more than four hours to prayer.
Some say he baptized close to 200,000 people, but the number could be close to 500,000 during his almost half-century of ministry. What’s remarkable about Peter Claver is his role as a Saint of the New World with a slew of others from South America.
More importantly, he is a patron saint for African-Americans and rightfully so. His ministry to the slaves has a broader impact on Catholics of African descent in America.
Although the slave trade was condemned by several popes, ruthless men still managed to perform the business. As a result, God rose up a great saint to combat the inhumane and unjust practice of slavery. Here God saw something evil and made a good out of it.
Also, slavery being condemned and the push for human rights wasn’t something new at the time. The Spanish Dominican theologian and philosopher Francisco de Vitoria was already cracking down on similar injustices committed by Spanish soldiers against the natives paving the way for modern-international law and human rights.
All of this is important to consider while examining the institution of slavery. Modern culture attacks the practice of missionary work of the past as complete ruthless killings by Christian soldiers or missionaries to advance their religion. But with bad apples, there is a lot of good ones-Christianity demonstrates that well with the heroic work of Claver!
As a Black man in America, the patronage of Peter Claver is one that is very personal. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I became Catholic.
I remember during RCIA, I told this to the assistant of the director of faith formation and she marveled at my connection:
Being of Ghanian descent from my father and southern African-American from my mother (sure there is more in her ancestry), I think it’s important to have a healthy respect for my continental ties to Africa. Not a Black Nationalist “Africa is superior”, but a “Wow, it’s amazing to think my ancestors were from there….Let me dig more” type of thing.
I’m amazed by how Catholics find their faith linked to their country or heritage. Mexicans venerate the heck out of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Irish have St. Patrick or Poles elevate St. John Paul II.
But what a privilege it is to have a deep chain of ancestry if you’re Black in America. Unless you’re Alex Haley, author of Roots, and have oral tradition passed down, for some Black people in America, maybe the ancestral stories don’t go further than 100 or so years ago but this varies from family to family I assume. Overall, this leaves countless Black people in the country scrambling and hungry for their ancestral ties.
At least with the Catholic Church and figures such as Peter Claver, I can recapture a cultural heritage that was lost by chattel slavery. I can find my real identity elevated by grace in Jesus Christ.
What the Transatlantic slave trade utterly decimated, God, to borrow St. Paul from Romans 8:29-30, predestined to be conformed to Christ. And those he predestined he also called and those he called he also justified and those he justified he also glorified.
A true family.
I love that!
I thank God for sending figures like Peter Claver to rise above the world and usher in a radical elevated grace that only Jesus Christ can do.
It’s no wonder why Catholics of African descent for centuries have found refuge in this saintly figures intercession. St. Paul admonished the Corinthians that he was their father through the gospel (1 Corinthian 4:15), Claver can be said to be the patron saint of African-Americans, a true guide to Jesus Christ.
St. Peter Claver, pray for us