The death of St. Peter Claver offers a lesson in the way the world treats saints — before and after they die. The son of an affluent Catalonian family, and academically successful, he entered the Jesuits in 1601 at the age of twenty. At the seminary, a lay brother saw in him a calling to care for the slaves in the Americas, who were horribly mistreated. (That lay brother would later be sainted, as St. Alphonsus Rodriquez.) And not just enslaved and horribly mistreated, but left without spiritual care. After he’d studied more, in 1610,the Jesuits sent Peter to Cartagena, on the coast of what is today Colombia. He was twenty-nine, and would never go home.
Cartagena was a center of the slave trade. The Spanish mine-owners imported Africans to work in the mines, because they didn’t think the natives strong enough. About 10,000 a year were shipped in the city and sold there.
As is well known, the slaves were shipped to the Americas in conditions the slavers would not have shipped animals, chained in place and packed in with others, barely fed, spending the weeks in their own waste and vomit, often beaten, tortured, and raped. A third died on the way on their bodies thrown overboard. Even when they arrived at the port, they were kept in pens in conditions nearly as bad.
St. Peter’s Apostolate
When he took his final Jesuit vows, Peter added the line, “Servant of the Africans forever.” For thirty-some years, Peter and companions he’d convinced to help — not everyone would — would race to the docks when a slaving ship arrived. He brought the slaves medicines and food, brandy, lemons, tobacco, and other things. The Jesuits would care for the sick and injured. He went into the pens even though some of the slaves had infectious diseases. “We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips,” he would say.
He instructed them in the Christian faith as he could, sometimes miming the Gospel when he didn’t know their language. Peter would baptize the dying and babies born on the ships and those who wanted it. He baptized an estimated 300,000 people. He would often travel inland to the mines and plantations, where he stayed with the slaves and cared for them, while advocating for them with the slave-owners.
Peter also worked hard in caring for others. He ministered at the city’s two hospitals. He would preach for hours in the public square. He could spend fifteen hours straight in the confessional. He ministered to every condemned man and went with him to the gallows.
When praised for his work, he once said, “There is nothing but self indulgence in it; it is the result of my enthusiastic and impetuous temperament. If it were not for this work I should be a nuisance to myself and to everybody else.” In the same way he explained his work by saying, “If being a saint consists in having no taste and having a strong stomach, I admit that I may be one.”
He worked under continual opposition. His care for the slaves did not please the slave-owners and public officials, and Peter’s superiors sometimes gave in to their pressure.
St. Peter’s Death
His years of work had weakened him. In 1650, he went inland to preach the Church’s jubilee year and got sick from an epidemic that was raging in the plantations. He recovered, but only a little. For the rest of his life, he suffered and trembled so badly he could not celebrate Mass, or do any of the active good works he had done for so long. He still heard confessions and was sometimes taken to the hospitals.
Otherwise he stayed mostly in his room, neglected by his Jesuit brothers and neglected and abused by the servant assigned to care for him. Then someone accused him of rebaptizing slaves, which he had never done, and the authorities would not let him baptize anyone anymore.
“It behooves me always to imitate the example of the ass,” he had said some time before. “When he is evilly spoken of, he is dumb. When he is starved, he is dumb. When he is overloaded, he is dumb. When he is despised and neglected, he is still dumb. He never complains in any circumstances, for he is only an ass. So also, must God’s servant be.” That was the life he lived after he got sick. He endured four years of being forgotten and neglected and abused.
He Lived Long Enough
He lived long enough for his replacement to arrive. On September 6th, 1654, after hearing Mass and receiving communion, he fell into a coma. The news that he was dying spread around the city. Suddenly people remembered him and many came for his blessing, stripping his room of anything that could be a relic. He died two days later. His closest friend heard a noise from upstairs and ran up to the saint’s room, to found him lying dead on the floor.
Suddenly the officials of Church and state remembered him, now that he was both safely dead and famous. Public officials praised him and declared they would pay for a grand funeral. The Church supplied one, led by the vicar general of the diocese. Two centuries later, and an ocean away, the Church declared him a saint.
Most of this story is taken from the biography on the Knights of Peter Claver’s site and some from a short article by Meg Hunter-Kilmer on Aleteia. The Litany of St. Peter Claver can be found here. For other stories of the saint’s deaths, go here.
The picture of the mosaic is taken by Jordiferrer and used under a creative commons license.