Memorial of St. Peter Claver
A Colossian from Cartagena?
Yesterday the Letter to the Colossians spoke in cosmic terms of Jesus, the image of the invisible God, who has reconciled the things of heaven and earth in himself through the blood of the Cross. Today Paul is not ‘cosmic’, rather down to earth. In his mortal body Jesus died; as if we were brides the Bridegroom presents us to the Father. We must be unshaken in our faith, unshaken in our hope promised by the Gospel.
Today as we celebrate the feast day of St. Peter Claver, SJ, Pope Francis is visiting Columbia where Peter arrived in 1610 at the age of 29. As the ‘slave of the slaves forever’, limited by the barrier of language and health problems, he served the continually arriving slave ships at Cartagena, a hub of the slave trade. He tended the sick and baptized the dying among the terrified and poorly treated slaves who had survived the middle passage, often of several months. Peter once said, “We must speak to them with our hands before we speak to them with our lips”. Columbia honors today, having made it yearly celebration of the Day of National Human Rights. In Peter’s day his work was recognized and supported by some officials, others found him bothersome, and there were some who refused to enter the same church or confessional as the slaves Peter was serving. Before his death Peter had been ill and was unable to minister, but at his funeral there was a great celebration for his holiness and work among the people of Cartagena. What he did was not unseen; others besides the slaves heard the work of his hands.
Before Pope Francis concludes his trip he will go to Cartagena tomorrow visiting the shrine of Peter Claver and blessing a homeless shelter. The background of the Pope’s visit is Columbia is the fragile peace that is ending 52 years of civil conflict in which 220,000 have died. Children, one of whom was born while his mother was captive for six years, met the Pope’s plane on arrival, not the usual military honor guard. He has visited Villavicencio, the agricultural region greatly affected by the war where he met with wounded victims. The pope is a spokesperson for peace, social justice and the marginalized by his presence as much as by his words.
Modern day slavery, issues of race, dominance, care for the poor and reaching out to people on the margins need people inspired by the example and basic approach of St. Peter Claver. Today many find a ‘Peter Claver’ bothersome and would not associate themselves with those who resemble the ones he reached out to in tender love. Pope Francis’ visit may be seen as a making visible the words to the Colossians: Jesus reconciles us through the blood of the Cross. This is cosmic but also in our everyday relationships. We must be unshaken in the gospel, in the faith and hope that it gives us. In his mortal body Jesus died. But Paul, Peter Claver, Pope Francis, missionaries and all of us as we follow Jesus proclaim the victory of the Resurrection in Jesus’ death and the reconciliation we strive to live.
Fr. William Murphy, CP is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jamaica, New York.