I’ve always been attracted to saints who accomplish magnificent feats with little to no fanfare. Sure, you’ve got St. Paul evangelizing the whole known world, then you have St. Ignatius launching a global religious order, and then there’s St. Padre Pio working miracles left and right. But I also admire saints like Peter Claver, who might not be well-known today, but who profoundly affected the Church and the world.
Peter was born on June 25, 1580 in Catalonia, Spain. From a young age, his poor but deeply Catholic parents modeled for him humility and obedience, emphasizing that the least actions done for God are great in his sight.
Their example deeply inspired Peter. While studying at a Jesuit-run university in Barcelona, he recorded these words in his notebook: “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave.” Little did he know how prophetic his words would become.
On March 19, 1616, Peter Claver was ordained a priest in Cartagena—the first Jesuit ordained in the city. He immediately set out for the work that would consume the rest of his life: serving the African slaves.
The African slave trade had been gaining steam as monarchs, like the emperor Charles V, promoted and profited from it. New settlers in the Americas followed suit and sought slave labor from the West African coasts of Guinea, the Congo, and Angola.
West African dealers either captured the slaves or bought them for around four crowns a head. They then sold each slave for an average of two hundred crowns. That enormous profit meant that most dealers were unconcerned with the health of any particular slave. Even if many died from sickness or hunger during trip to the New World, they would still remain profitable. To them, slaves were disposable objects and keys to profit, not human beings with dignity.
The journey across the Atlantic Ocean took several months, and the conditions aboard the slave ships were indescribably foul and inhuman. The slaves spent all day and night chained to one another, with little food or water. Human waste smeared the floor and disease was rampant. It’s estimated that during each trip, one-third of the slaves died in transit.
Peter’s first move in Cartagena was to connect with Father Alfonso de Sandoval, a fellow Jesuit known for his ministry to slaves. By the time Peter arrived, Alfonso had already been serving in Cartagena for over 40 years. He took Peter under his wing and taught him many lessons. For example, Alfonso shared how valuable it was to learn the African customs and languages, for if you spoke in words and symbols that the slaves recognized, you would quickly gain their trust.
Working with Father Alfonso solidified Peter’s mission to the slaves. As he witnessed their degrading conditions, and the ways their dignity was trampled over, he knew he wanted to devote his life to them. He began identifying himself as “Petrus Claver, Aethiopum servus”—Peter Claver, slave of the Africans. (He would later become known more generally as the “slave of the slaves.”)
Alfonso and Peter served the same people but in different ways. Alfonso visited the slaves where they worked, usually in the mines or plantations. But Peter chose to meet them on the slave ships as soon as they arrived. He wanted their first experience of the New World to be one of compassion and dignity.
Each month when the slave ships appeared, Peter sailed out to them on a small boat. He climbed aboard and met slaves on the deck. Then he hurried down to the filthy and putrid holds, the floors covered with mud and feces, and offered whatever poor refreshments he could afford. He found it difficult to move around since the slaves were shackled close together. But as Peter navigated the crowd, he smiled and greeted each person, passing out fruits, biscuits, sweets, and tobacco. You can imagine the impact this had. Most slaves were sick and terrified and hadn’t seen a friendly face for months. Few had ever received such generosity.
Peter’s kindness offered a breath of fresh air in an otherwise hellish inferno. It showed the slaves that this man was no oppressor: he was their defender and friend, one who believed they deserved the same respect as all other people.
Many of the local clergy, including several of Peter’s Jesuit brothers, decided that since they didn’t speak any of the African languages, they were exempt from helping the slaves. But Peter didn’t buy that excuse. He taught himself the language of Angola, since many of the slaves came from there, and hired teams of interpreters to help with other languages. Following Alfonso’s advice, he also carried to the slaves large pictures with basic instructions about the faith. His main goal was to restore their self-respect by explaining how they were made in the image of God and thus had dignity and worth. You are loved, he would tell them, and nothing can take that away.
However, it was an uphill battle. Besides the language barriers, the slaves were bitter and suspicious of Peter’s charity. Yet through persistence and patience, he overcame their resistances. Peter baptized over 300,000 African slaves during his ministry, more baptisms than any saint in Church history (though depending on which account you read, his fellow Jesuit St. Francis Xavier may have bested him.) To transcend the language problems, he creatively chose to baptize slaves in groups of ten, giving them all the same baptismal name so it would be easier for them to remember.
These baptisms saved their souls, of course. But they were important for other reasons, too. First, they indelibly marked each slave as a child of God. They expressed to the slaves that they were not merely property, bartering objects, or cheap sources of labor. They were invaluable sons and daughters of God, deeply loved and divinely dignified.
Baptism also made a public statement. It lifted the slaves onto an equal plane with their masters. Some locals criticized Peter for “profaning” the sacrament by baptizing creatures whom they believed scarcely possessed a soul. Others complained that inviting slaves into a church desecrated it. Peter responded by quoting from St. Paul, who taught there is “one Lord, one faith, [and] one baptism” (Eph 4:5). He baptized slaves into the same waters, with the same formula, and into the same Church as their owners and masters, thereby communicating that whether black or white, rich or poor, slave or free, all emerged from the baptismal waters as members of the same Body of the Christ.
Peter was immediately recognized as a national hero upon his death in 1654. Civil and religious leaders scrambled over each other to honor his memory, burying Peter with impressive ceremony and at great expense. The Africans and Indians arranged their own special Mass to celebrate their friend and protector, the “Slave of the Slaves.” When they first heard of Peter’s death, they visited his cell and stripped away everything to serve as relics of the saint, so great was their love for him.
In 1888, Pope Leo XIII officially canonized Peter Claver, along with his mentor Alphonsus Rodriguez, and declared him the patron of missionary work among the African people.
The primary way Peter helped slaves was by revealing their own dignity. He did this by affirming how much God loved them. That simple truth may seem trite today—“Jesus loves me, this I know…”—but it still has life-changing power. The most remarkable fact that anyone can know is that God uniquely created you in love, that he desires you, cares for you, and values you immensely. Even more, that this love has nothing to do with what you do or who you are. God’s love is unearned and unconditional, a fact that gave hope to slaves four-hundred years ago and continues to dignify lives today.
This post was excerpted from Brandon’s latest book, Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World. Find out more by visiting SaintsAndSocialJustice.com.