August 29, 2010


When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.

Luke 14: 13-14

A strong Gospel point, so let’s see how it’s done. Peter Claver, a 17th century Spaniard, extended a life-long invitation to those with absolutely nothing to offer. His invitees were slaves. Despite condemnation of slavery by Pope Eugenius IV in 1435, & by Pope Paul III in 1537, greed proved stronger than Papal admonitions & the slave trade flourished among both Protestants & Catholics.

Peter was a bright, religious lad, but he found it very hard to make a decision & stick by it. He was sent to a school run by the Jesuits in Barcelona . He talked a lot about joining the Order, but could never quite commit himself. Finally, after several years he asked to be received as a Jesuit novice. But he had barely entered the novitiate when he began once more to second-guess himself. He drove everyone crazy with his indecisiveness.

Help came in the form of a 72 year old lay brother who was the door keeper. He had had a business & a family, but after they all died, he gave up his business & entered the religious life. His name was brother Alphonsus Rodriguez. His business had taught him to be a judge of character & how to handle a customer who couldn’t decide what he wanted. He assured Peter that he did indeed belong in the Jesuits & that he should ask his superiors to send him to the Americas as a missionary. Peter was stunned, but Alphonsus insisted that the way to overcome fear & indecision is to make a bold move.

Peter took his advice & was sent to Cartagena , Columbia as an unordained novice. A certain Fr. Sandoval made him his assistant. Fr. was the only white man who treated the African slaves kindly. When he heard the canon that signaled the arrival of another slave ship, he hurried to meet it with food, water & medicine. The comforts he could offer were meager, yet he cared for his “parishioners”, as he called them, until they had all been sold off & the pen was empty.

Working with him turned out to be the turning point for Peter. It transformed this well-off, middle class young man. Once he recognized that he could do something for God & his fellow man, all doubts & uncertainties vanished. He asked his superiors to ordain him & permit him to serve the slaves. He spent the rest of his life inviting to the Lord’s banquet those who could never repay.

When a slaver sailed into the harbor, he would take the pilot boat out to the ship & began his work at once down in the hold. On shore, as the slaves were herded into the pens, Peter went with them. Over the years he built up a team of interpreters who could speak the various languages of the lands from which most of the captives came. In this way he could learn what they needed & tried to comfort them. Every day Peter & the interpreters returned with more food, water, & medicines, & he would explain to them the basics of the Catholic faith. It is said that during the 44 years Fr. Claver served in the slave pens, he baptized over 100,000 Africans. He regarded them as his parishioners.

Not surprisingly, Peter’s devotion to his African converts enraged the white population in Cartagena . He was accused of keeping slaves from their work, of contaminating churches & chapels with unwashed Africans. He was charged with profaning the Blessed Sacrament by giving communion to these “animals.” Even some of Peter’s brother Jesuits thought he was excessively devoted to the Africans. No matter. Peter had found his vocation & would not be deterred from it.

At the age of 74 Fr. Peter collapsed in the slave pen & died shortly thereafter, attended only by an African servant. A crowd of slaves broke down the gates of the Jesuit residence so they could see their saint one last time. On January 15, 1888, the people of Rome witnessed a double canonization as Pope Leo XIII declared Peter Claver & Alphonsus Rodriguez, banquet throwers for the poor, saints. The Gospel of the Lord! AMEN!