One of my favorite chapters in the New Testament, Matthew 25, compels us to care for the needs of those who experience profound suffering and isolation. By reaching out, with deeds of mercy, to marginalized and disenfranchised people, in truth, we minister to the Lord Himself.
This recalls the lifework of Jesuit priest St. Peter Claver, who left his native Spain in 1610 to be a New World missionary in the wealthy port city of Cartagena (now in Columbia), where he was ordained in 1615.
Cartagena was an epicenter in the booming slave trade. Each year, 10,000 slaves arrived at the port after crossing the Atlantic Ocean from West Africa under conditions so wretched and inhumane that an estimated one-third of the passengers died en route.
Peter Claver devoted himself to the service of the slaves. When a slave ship entered port, he immediately boarded the infested hold to minister to the anguished and abused passengers. As shackled slaves were herded out of the ships and placed into holding pens, Claver immersed himself among them, administering medicine, food, bread, lemons, brandy, and tobacco. Via interpreters, he assured his brothers and sisters of their human dignity and the saving grace of God’s love. During his 40 years of ministry, Claver helped and baptized an estimated 300,000 slaves.
As a moral force in Cartagena, he preached in the city square and ministered to sailors and traders. On country missions, when possible, he avoided the hospitality of plantation owners and instead lodged in the slave quarters.
He died on Sept. 8, 1654, and was canonized in 1888. Columbia celebrates National Human Rights Day on Sept. 9, St. Peter Claver’s feast day.
Father Scott Donahue is the president of Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.