Page 12, 12th August 1938

12th August 1938
Page 12
Page 12, 12th August 1938 — St. Peter Claver (1581-1654) Sept. 9

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Locations: Liverpool, Bristol


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St. Peter Claver (1581-1654) Sept. 9

HERE is a special reason for writing about this Saint. Many people are praying that his Feast may be extended to the Universal Church: it is already, I think, general in Africa and in parts of America if not all.

Peter was the son of a Catalonian farmer and was sent to a good school and then to the University of Barcelona and then offered himself as novice to the Society of Jesus. What his biographers seem never to notice is that at each step he was beset by anxieties and timidity: he felt he was not meant to be a religious at all: then, not a priest. This man of supreme tenacity of will began as a very vacillating, easily disheartened youth.

During his period of studying philosophy he had the good fortune to meet Si.. Alphonsus Rodriguez, who, from having been a very practical-minded married commercial man, became a Jesuit lay-brother and a true mystic. It was he who lifted the young student's mind over the difficulties of the hour, by inflaming him with the desire to go to the New World and minister to the natives whom he might find there.

Idle Priests "How many idle priests in Europe," said the clear-sighted lay-brother, "could save souls in America!" It is often possible to do what seems difficult, by setting yourself a task which seems far harder still. Then the difficulty of the moment slips into a perspective, and is taken, unnoticed, in a man's stride.

Not that Peter immediately conquered his undecisiveness: he left Spain for Cartagena in 1610, his theological studies still

unfinished. While completing these, he also worked with serenity as porter, sacristan, infirmarian and cook, and finally took the irrevocable step by being ordained pricst in 1615. Slavery

At the period, slavery was a general if not universal custom, and this implied, necessarily, the slave-trade. Slavery and the slave-trade must be sharply distinguished. Christianity itself did not seek to abolish slavery at a blow: the change had to come, and came, from a change of heart due to Christianity itself.

I am not now discussing the theory of slavery : it is certain that in America, for example, its sudden abolition created the utmost confusion, and even misery for the slaves themselves. But the slave-trade was the most foul iniquity. Slaves might be bought in Africa, or might be merely carried off amid conditions of wholesale rape, assassination and burning of villages. ln the ships conditions were beyond belief. The slaves were tied together in bundles in the hold, often fifty per cent. would die; officers fainted at the stench; very many Slaves went mad; yet ten thousand a year were landed at Cartagena and the profit was many hundreds per cent.

" Supreme Villainy" Paul III, like Pills TX later on, and ecclesiastical authority in general bitterly denounced this " supreme villainy," but

nothing could stop the trade. England cannot applaud herself. Every nation tried for the monopoly. Liverpool became so appalling that nothing worse could be found to be said about Bristol than that it was a second Liverpool. Even in the nineteenth century owners in Jamaica were saying that orang-outangs were good enough as mates for these black beasts.

It is curious how Saints who have emerged as the Apostle of this or that have so often had a kind of John the Baptist who preceded them. Thus for example had St. Francis Xavier. The Jesuit Father de Sandoval spent forty years in the service of these slaves, and even of him it was said that when he so much as heard of a new shipload about to arrive he never failed to break into a cold sweat and sickness at the thought of the work that awaited him. Claver worked under him for a year. and then vowed himself to be " slave of the slaves for ever."

He was, as I said, shy and without natural tenacity, yet the moment when the living cargo was unloaded into the reeking slave-yard Clever would arrive with lemons, medicine, brandy, tobacco, and so on, and disregarding the variety of appalling infections from which they suffered, made acquaintance with each, helping himself by a hand of seven interpreters who spoke at least four negro dialects. In his forty years of work he individually instructed and baptised over 300,000 slaves, and became, as you may imagine, the supreme moral force in that city.

Kept in Touch

When the slaves had sufficiently recovered to be sent out to work in cornpounds he kept in touch with each, and annually made a tour of the plantations to see how they were, and to influence if possible their masters, who certainly had some Christian principles, whereas, alas, it is impossible to observe that the majority of our own absolutely fiendish owners had any of any sort.

Yet this occupied only a part of his time. He weekly visited the general hospital of the Brothers of St. John of God, and St. Lazarus's Hospital, which was for lepers. His influence in the actual port among seamen was again limitless, even among the English. It was he, too, who was invariably called upon to assist those who were being executed. On one horrible occasion the rope by which a man was being hanged broke twice; each time Clever caught him and really miraculously, in his case as in others, preserved in serenity a man who not long before had been howling with alternate blasphemies and despair.

In 16.50 he fell sick. He recovered, however, but was left with such a trembling that he could go about his work, which he instantly resumed, only when strapped to a horse, which sometimes ran away with his helplessness. One of the most touching things that I can think of is the way in which sick natives trusted to sheer contact with his cloak. One is reminded of the cloths and handkerchiefs which sick people ask to have carried to them after contact with St. Peter, whose very shadow they wished to have fall on them. You can imagine how even the thoroughly wellmeaning were in a panic when Claver approached wearing a cloak which had been laid over so many dreadful diseases. He, however, had now grown old and was relegated to his room.

Ignorant; But Well-meaning The Jesuits of the college had their ordinary work to do, had lost many men through the plague which was then raging, and never diminished their own wholehearted service of the plague-stricken. Claver had to be left to the care of a very ignorant young negro, who was well-meaning, hut of no use-or worse-as an inlirmarian. The last days of Claver, therefore, were spent in that solitude for which all his life he had prayed-a life, however, lived among nothing but crowds. In 1654 a Fr. Farina arrived from Spain with a direct commission from the King to serve the negro population. Clever was overjoyed and, on September 6. said he was going to die. Already the civil authorities had begun to demolish the college because a bigger one was to be built. But lie had said that he need not leave his celt.

In fact, on September 8, when the sound of the hammers was already audible against his wall, he died; but not before the entire city somehow knew that this was happening. The college was invaded. The Jesuits tried to bar the doors, but every civil authority, the nobles, swarms of little children, and finally an absolute army of negroes thronged the house and crushed, as best they could, into the room where the Saint lay with nothing save his cassock, his crucifix and his little paper picture of the lay-brother St. Alphonsus, whose words had made such a difference to his boyhood.

Claver and Alphonsus weie canonised together in 1888. Claver is already proclaimed Patron of all missionary enterprises among negroes everywhere; and, as I said, many hope that his feast will be extended to the universal Church, and for this I trust you will pray. A slightly fuller account, with other anecdotes, can be found in my little book of I3.13.C. talks called What Are Saints?

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