Peter Claver (26th June 1581 – 8th September 1654) was born in Spain in a devout family. He studied at the University of Barcelona and entered the Society of Jesus at the age of twenty. Spanish colonialism was at its height at that time and Peter who had written in his Spiritual Diary the words “I must dedicate myself to the service of God until death on the understanding that I am like a slave” volunteered to serve in the Spanish colonies. In 1610, he arrived in Cartagena (today, Colombia) where he did his theological studies and was later ordained a priest.
During his years of formation, he was deeply disturbed seeing the terrible inhuman treatment meted out to the black slaves who were brought by the Spanish ships from Africa and their appalling living conditions. He decided to do something about that.
As soon as a ship of slaves arrived, Claver – we are told, would enter that ship and see what he could do for them. When they were later on taken into the “slave yards”, he would bring them medicine, food and clothing and minister to them in every possible way. In a country where slavery and the slave trade seem to have great legitimacy, Claver had to fight a continuous battle among the powerful and vested interests and often with his brother Jesuits who saw nothing wrong in slavery. The Magistrates of the city considered Claver a nuisance for his persistent advocacy on behalf of the slaves.
So what would Peter Claver do if he were around today? He would have certainly responded to the newer forms of slavery which include bonded labour, human trafficking, displacement of the poor and the marginalised because of mega projects and lopsided development and above all to the current refugee crisis which is perhaps the largest migration of people in recent history.
When the slave ships arrived in Cartagena, all of them were also “floating mortuaries” because several of the slaves used to die due to starvation and ill-health in the long and arduous journey to the Spanish colonies. On November 25th 2014, when Pope Francis addressed the European Parliament, he used a striking similarity when he said “we cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery! The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance”. (The recent picture of a child refugee washed onto the shores of Turkey is a painful example). Claver would have readily agreed and responded to the call of his fellow Jesuit. Pope Francis has also asked every parish of Europe to adopt a refugee family. Claver did exactly that – more than 450 years ago – asking the owners of the slaves to treat them with compassion, dignity and as equals.
Above all, Peter today would certainly have immersed himself in the works of the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) advocating the cause of the refugees; asking Governments and other vested interest to do something about the crisis; and at the same time, creating more humane, hospitable and liveable conditions for the refugees. It was not without reason that for his final religious profession, Peter in his own hands wrote and signed “Peter Claver, Slave of the Slaves, forever”.
(A Reflection on the Feast of St Peter Claver)