(September 9, 2020)
On September 9th, the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of Saint Peter Claver. Peter Claver was a Spanish-born Jesuit missionary sent to Cartagena, Colombia, and his primary apostolate was ministering to the West Africans who arrived in Cartagena aboard slave ships.
St. Peter Claver is the patron saint of Black people and Interracial Justice.
Claver’s evangelization was not one of Bible-thumping but mercy. Fr. Claver met the incoming slaves with dignity and love, binding up their wounds, feeding them, and looking into their eyes as people, not as slaves.
St. Peter Claver communicated God’s love in deed more than in word, which is one of the crowning themes of the Spiritual Exercises (SpEx 230).
He treated the Africans with the dignity and the respect that they deserved as children of God.
In 2007, I visited Cartagena. I had planned a leisure trip, staying at a beachfront hotel and intending to become acquainted with the local scene.
I stumbled across a beautiful church in the center of the city: San Pedro Claver.
The parish was in the heart of the city, but I experienced the Heart of Christ there, and returned to that church everyday of my trip.
Need I remind the reader, this was a pleasure trip, not a religious pilgrimage.
I approached one of the older Jesuits after Mass one day, and was amazed that he both understood my Spanish and that he invited me to see the room where the saint stayed.
I was moved by this generous invitation, and believed in that moment that God had called me to be there.
I walked into this simple room and I experienced the holiness of God. This was a room God had visited. This is a room where God dwells.
I believe my experience of God in that moment reflects Claver’s belief in God and love for Christ exhibited by his love for the people he served, a people who had no one to love them.
I also believe it was the saint’s experience of the Spiritual Exercises that formed him with a heart that desired to know Jesus intimately and follow him (SpEx 104), especially to be with the Christ who suffers (SpEx 203) enfleshed in the Black slaves.
In Cartagena, while amid the Black slaves, the heart of Claver transformed into the Heart of Christ, a Heart that suffers with those who experience injustice.
I believe it was no coincidence that the Spirit led me to Cartagena to visit this holy site of the Patron Saint of Interracial Justice. Approximately 13 years later, witnessing the murder of George Floyd resulted in a new trajectory in my life, one of anti-racism and activism within the Catholic Church.
St. Peter Claver had been forming me even back then to follow Christ by fighting racial injustice, just as he had done during his life.
What would this saint do today? While Black people are no longer slaves, they are clearly not treated as free persons in 2020, and their lives do not matter to many people in the United States, including political leaders.
I believe Peter Claver would be deeply saddened by the US Church’s divided and ambiguous response to racism and the US Bishops’ complicity with white nationalism, white supremacy and white privilege.
Claver would do today what he did in his day: care for Black lives. I believe he would weep with those who weep, march with those who march, and work to dismantle systemic racism.
I also believe, as one who joined in the protests, Claver would have supported Black people in their pain and ministered to the protestors who were being beaten and tear-gassed.
The good saint might have also been beaten by police and counter-protestors, tear-gassed, and even murdered by white supremacists such as Kyle Rittenhouse.
If Saint Peter Claver were alive today, he would reveal to many who call themselves Christians that they are on the wrong side of history and the opposite side of Jesus.
Rather than minister to the marginalized, these so-called Christians persecute an already persecuted people.
The Church made no mistake in declaring Peter Claver a saint. To name someone a saint is to highlight a person’s example to imitate and follow in order to love and serve Jesus.
The Church therefore needs to call on the faithful to imitate the manner that Claver cared for Black lives, and more importantly, the US Bishops and priests need to exemplify this.
To fail to do so would make a liar out of the Church and Claver, and thereby lead the faithful astray.