Feast Day: September 9th | Patron of Slaves, Race Relations, Seafarers, Colombia
Pere Claver i Corberó had just finished his bachelor’s degree in humanities at the University of Barcelona. The 22-year-old had done his father, Pedro (the mayor of his hometown) proud, getting good grades and becoming a leader of his peers. Peter had lost his mother just before going to the university, but he now fondly recalled her injunction that “nothing should come between him and the love of God.” She had prayed constantly for her son’s vocation, asking Hannah and our Mother Mary to lead and protect him. Now her, and their, prayers were being answered because as Pere thought of his future, the thought of becoming a priest continued to flicker through his soul. He had met priests of the new religious order calling itself the Society of Jesus, a gutsy title that fired the heart of the young man. He had finally written to the Order, putting words on his deep desire to “become a saint, and … save many souls.” God loved that prayer.
The superior general of the Jesuits, Cludio Aquaviva, accepted Pere into the novitiate and he was sent to Tarragona for two years of learning about the order and giving time for God’s grace to deeply enter his heart. As a novice, he kept a notebook with meditations from the various times of prayer, many of them rather ordinary, some too sublime to describe, and some articulating desires that he had not placed in the depths of his heart. On one occasion he penned this line: “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death, on the understanding that I am like a slave, wholly occupied in the service of his master and in the endeavor to please and content him in all and in every way with his whole soul, body, and mind.” The year was 1602. He returned often to those words in the years to come.
Brother Peter did his philosophical studies at the College of Montesión on the lovely island of Majorca. There he became friends with the lay brother who manned the door to the college, Alphonsus Rodríguez. Rodríguez did not know it, but he was one of the many holy porters that the Church would produce in the years to come. This humble man would be canonized along with St. Nuno de Braganza of Portugal (+1431), St. John Masias (+1645) and St. Martin de Porres (+1639) of Peru, St. Padre Pio in Italy (+1968), and their group now includes Bl. André Bessette of Montreal (+1937) and Bl. Solanus Casey (+1957) of Michigan as well. The 80-year-old Alphonsus would entrust to Peter much of the spiritual wisdom he had received in the simple work of meeting and greeting, passing onto him a profound love for those who need it the most, and encouraging him to go as a missionary to the New World.
God, in his providence, placed another person in Peter’s life to guide his steps into the future. This was Fr. Alonso de Sandoval, himself a missionary in Colombia who had spent 40 years ministering on the plantations there. Slavery had been made legal there some 70 years before, and ever since that wretched day, the number of Africans being bought, imported, and forced to work had kept growing. Once again, Peter, now a newly ordained Jesuit priest, found his heart fired by the love at work in this man. Fr. Claver had felt that interior-fire in Barcelona after the death of his mother, in Tarragona in the silence of prayer, on Majorca chatting with Br. Alphonsus, and now in Cartagena, assisting Fr. Sandoval to publish his rich knowledge of the customs, languages, and religions he had come to know working with those enslaved in Colombia. He would need that fire every day on the docks of Cartegena. Here are his own words describing the scene:
Yesterday, May 30, 1627, numerous blacks … disembarked from a large ship. Carrying two baskets of oranges, lemons, sweet biscuits, and I know not what else, we hurried toward them. … We had to force our way through the crowd until we reached the sick. Large numbers of the sick were lying on the wet ground or rather in puddles of mud. … they were naked, without any clothing to protect them. There were two blacks, nearer death than life, already cold, whose pulse could scarcely be detected. With the help of a tile we pulled some live coals together and placed them in the middle near the dying men. … they seemed to recover their warmth and the breath of life. The joy in their eyes as they looked at us was something to see. This was how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and our actions. And in fact, convinced as they were that they had been brought here to be eaten, any other language would have proved utterly useless. Then we sat, or rather knelt, beside them and bathed their faces and bodies with wine. We made every effort to encourage them with friendly gestures and displayed in their presence the emotions which somehow naturally tend to hearten the sick. … we declared to them the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Passion. Showing them Christ fastened to the cross, as he is depicted on the baptismal font on which streams of blood flow down from his wounds, we led them in reciting an act of contrition in their own language.
Peter went into those ships almost every day for four decades. He saw almost a million slaves arrive on those docks. He baptized a third of them. One spark of divine love can carry you far.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin has never been given the assignment of porter, but it might be a great way to become a saint!