One of the greatest heroes of the social justice wing of the Church is, quite rightly, the seventeenth century “slave of the slaves,” St. Peter Claver. Born in Barcelona, Claver joined the Society of Jesus and was known, even as a young man, as a person of deep intelligence and piety. Spurred by what he took to be the direct prompting of the Holy Spirit, the young Spaniard volunteered to work among the poor in what was then known as “New Spain.” Arriving in Cartagena, he saw the unspeakable degradation of the captives brought in chains by ship from Africa, and he resolved to dedicate his life to serving them.
We have a wonderful letter that Peter Claver wrote to his Jesuit superior in which he vividly describes apostolic work that he did among the slaves, just after they came ashore in Cartagena. He speaks of hopeless people staggering off the ships, stark naked, starving, and disoriented. Many were so sick that they were barely able to stand. Peter and his colleagues brought them fruits and water, and then, he tells us, they contrived to build a crude shelter, using their own coats and cloaks. For the dying, they lit a fire and threw aromatic spices onto the flames so that the sufferers might have a bit of comfort and delight before they died. He adds the touching detail that they employed friendly gestures and signs to communicate concern to those with whom they shared no common language: “This is how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and our actions.” I cannot imagine any decent person today who wouldn’t understand and deeply sympathize with everything that Peter Claver did on behalf of these poorest of the poor. They would be justified in seeing him as a seventeenth century anticipation of Mother Teresa.
However, as we continue to peruse Claver’s letter, we discover something that many today would find puzzling, even off-putting. Immediately after caring for their physical and psychological needs, the saint commenced to instruct the slaves in the rudiments of the Christian faith. Once the new arrivals demonstrated a fundamental understanding, Claver continues, “we went on to a more extensive instruction, namely, about the one God, who rewards and punishes…We asked them to make an act of contrition…finally…we declared to them the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Passion.” In other words, just after ministering to their bodies and their troubled minds, he ministered to their souls.
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