Black Lives Really Mattered to St. Peter Claver

Hollywood award shows used to be de rigeur viewing for most Americans. No more. Perhaps because a kind of collective delirium has set upon the artist class. Take the Emmy’s this past Sunday, for instance. One of the celebrity winners, Donald Glover—a black man—snidely remarked, “I want to thank Trump for making black people number one on the most oppressed list.” Not only was the remark counterfactual, it was sheer madness.

No wonder Americans are fleeing from award shows. Americans prefer listening to sane voices like Shelby Steele, the black intellectual, who recently analyzed this circumstance in the Wall Street Journal, “Today Americans know that active racism is no longer the greatest barrier to black and minority advancement.” Steele rightly pointed out that “white racism did not shoot more than 4,000 people last year in Chicago.”

Jason Riley, also a black man writing in the Journal, echoed Steele: “Between 1890 and 1940, for example, black marriages rates in the U.S. were higher than white marriage rates. In the 1940s and ’50s, black labor participation rates exceeded those of whites; black incomes grew much faster than white incomes; and the black poverty rate fell by 40 percentage points.”

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So much for blacks occupying “the most oppressed list.” Facts are inconvenient things, the bane of fevered zealots. But what might a true champion of the black people look like? Well, he’d look like St. Peter Claver, who cared less for zealotry, and more for charity.

While Claver was born in Verdu, Spain in 1580, he was ordained a priest in Cartagena, Columbia in 1616. Deeply impressed by the mistreatment of African slaves he requested his Jesuit superiors that he be assigned to them to teach the Faith and administer the sacraments.

For some 100 years prior to St. Peter’s arrival in Columbia the Spanish government had dealt in the inhuman and barbaric slave trade. By the early seventeenth century Spanish entrepreneurs were importing over 10,000 slaves to Columbia every month. All in open defiance of the condemnations of both Pope Paul III and Urban VIII, culminating in Blessed Pius IX’s declaration that slavery was a “supreme villainy.”

With an impassioned priestly soul St. Peter would daily find a spot at the Cartagena’s bustling harbor to await the tortured human cargo. Impatient with the docking protocols, the saint would convince sailors to procure a small boat to take him to the anchored ships. Climbing aboard he hurriedly made his way down into the bowels of the ship where the slaves were packed like cattle, mere inches separating one from another. Within such suffocating confinement the slaves ate, drank and evacuated themselves. During the long transatlantic voyage, the men had hands and legs shackled, causing excruciating open ulcerations. Along with the ravages of dysentery, the floors of the deck were coated with mucous and blood. The stench was so overpowering that not even seasoned sailors could bear it for more than several minutes at a time. This was Hell. Until St. Peter Claver arrived.

Without a slightest hesitation, the saint rushed to the chained slaves as though they were long lost friends. Their captors treated these slaves like animals; Claver handled them like rare jewels. Shocked surprise shone on their faces as St. Peter fed them, washed their wounds, carried those too weak to walk. But then the saint did something that went beyond food or drink or relief from suffering. He kissed them. Only an ordinary kiss, but far beyond ordinary to these prisoners. It swept these unfortunates into a different world, one shimmering with a transcendence few men ever know.

On land, St. Peter followed the slaves to their new places of bondage. There he instructed them in the Catechism, baptized them, administered Holy Communion, and heard their Confessions. In his preaching, the saint would show them a large gold medal, with the images of Jesus and Mary, then spend hours standing as the slaves queued to kiss the holy medal. The saint set up his humble quarters near where most of the slaves were housed. Some suffered wounds from their labors, and for lack of treatment, became infected, producing a nauseating odor. Other slaves would refuse to live near them. St. Peter would take the infected slaves and give them his quarters, while he slept on the floor.

By the time the saint died, he had spent 33 years among the Columbian slaves, having baptized 300,000 of them.

To a modern world weary of religion, but boasting a fashionable sensitivity to the plight of the suffering, St. Peter teaches the only answer to human misery is supernatural love. He never turned to political solutions, cries of injustice or rebellious demonstrations, he gave them only the consolations of the sacrament of Penance, and the nourishments of Christ’s Body in the Holy Mass. Claver never removed his simple black cassock, even as he endured the heavy labors of caring for the souls of his charges. He would have found strange the modern excuse that the cassock separates the priest from his people. On the contrary, he knew that the cassock unites the priest to his people. Like glue. Clothed in the cassock, the people don’t see the man, but Christ. But perhaps therein lies the contemporary neuralgia to the classic habit of the priest.

St. Peter Claver can never be called a humanitarian. Humanitarians are moved by their feelings; saints are moved by their love of Christ. Humanitarians see only victims, saints see souls for whom Christ shed his Precious Blood. Outside the orbit of Christ’s Cross, men become mere pawns on a chess board or props to score political points. The current vogue for Third World adoptions is perfect illustration. Most of it is grandstanding for political effect, whilst simultaneously telegraphing their loathing for all things redolent of Western Civilization.

Humanitarians would never do what Peter Claver did, only saints could.

Debilitating sickness riddled the body of the saint in his waning years. An African slave was assigned to care for him, in fact, one of those who had been the recipient of Claver’s transformative priestly ministrations. For the remaining months of the saint’s life, Claver’s caretaker mistreated him, often refusing to feed him, frequently even beating him. Claver finally died alone, not one of the 300,000 near him to bring some sweetness as he lay taking his last breaths. His solitary accompaniments were the ungrateful brutalities of one whom Claver had poured the goodness of his priestly heart. Never did the saint utter a word of complaint, excusable considering the context and circumstance. But a saint sees all as possibilities of merciful closeness with the Crucified.

St. Peter Claver never restricted his priestly attention to only the African slaves. He was available to every soul in need of Christ’s salvific power. Once he ministered to a wealthy Spanish official who was in prison, awaiting execution for a capital crime. St. Peter found his way to the high-ranking Spaniard, and gave him a prayer book, encouraging him to pray from it every day. He did. Every day until his death, and before his execution he received Last Rites from the saint. When his family recovered his belongings, they were surprised to find a prayer book among this bon vivant’s possessions. Upon opening it, they found an inscription written in the hand of the deceased, “This book was owned by the happiest man in the world.”

Only one thing would make a man happier than being cared for by a saint. Becoming a saint himself.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “St. Peter Claver Ministering to African Slaves in Cartagena” painted by Emanuel Dite in 1894. (Photo credit: Diana Garnett)


  • Fr. John A. Perricone

    Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona University in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies. He can be reached at

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