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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Speak with Your Hands Before You Speak with Your Lips

Fr. Scott A, Haynes


In 1610, a young Jesuit named Peter Claver left his native Spain to become a missionary in the New World colonies. In 1615, he sailed into the prosperous port city of Cartagena (now in Colombia) and would be ordained there. By this time, the slave trade had been practiced in the Americas for close to a century. Cartagena was the main hub of the slave trade. Each year, 10,000 slaves arrived at the harbor after making the perilous Atlantic journey from West Africa, where it is estimated that one-third of the passengers died on the voyage. Despite Pope Paul III's condemnation, the practice of exchanging slaves persisted.

Before St. Peter Claver arrived to carry on his work, Jesuit Father Alfonso de Sandoval, who had served the slaves for 40 years, had vowed to be "the slave of the Negroes forever." St. Peter Claver would immediately enter the infested hold of slave ships as soon as it docked, in order to tend to its maltreated and worn-out passengers. St. Peter Claver went among the slaves with medicines, food, bread, brandy, lemons, and tobacco after they had been herded out of the ship like chained animals and imprisoned in adjoining yards to be gawked at by the onlookers.

He taught the slaves and reassured them of their human dignity, as he demonstrated his care for them. Using translators, St. Peter Claver spoke of God's salvation and the love of the Lord. He prepared 300,000 slaves to receive baptism throughout the course of his 40-year ministry. "The apostle of Cartagena" was a moral force for the poor and the abused. When possible, he eschewed the hospitality of the slave owners so that he might dwell in the slave quarters and minster to them. While preaching in the city square, he gave missions to sailors and traders as well.

The saint passed away on the Feast of Our Lady's Nativity, September 8, 1654, following four years of illness that required him to stay idle. Despite all the care he gave to so many, for the most part, he received little care during his illness. His concern for the slaves initially caused the city magistrates to frown upon his work. But in time, they came to see the goodness of his work. Upon his death, they decreed that he should be buried with great fanfare and that this expenditure should be paid for by the general public.

St. Peter Claver recognized that providing food and medicine was a necessary first step in promoting the Gospel. As Peter Claver often said:
"We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips."

Pope Leo XIII named him the global patron of missionary activity among black slaves when he was canonized in 1888.


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