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Catholic Voice
  June 26, 2017   •   VOL. 55, NO. 12   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column
Above, some of the women on the pilgrimage in honor of St. Peter Claver visit with Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ. From left: Lady Velma Gaines Miller, Grand Lady Dolores Hill, Grand Lady Judith Brooks, Bishop Barber, Lady Regina Wilkerson, Leticia R. Aguirre and Patricia A. Cruise. At left,With Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, Jose Aguirre Jr. and his wife Leticia celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary while on the pilgrimage. Read more in the July 10 issue of The Catholic Voice.

Pilgrims walk path of 'the slave of the slaves forever'

Most Rev.
Michael C. Barber, SJ

Earlier this month, I boarded a connecting flight in Panama City, late at night. As the pilot was building speed taxiing down the runway trying to take off, he suddenly slammed on the brakes and the plane screeched to a halt. Everybody woke up.

The problem: an alligator was resting comfortably in the middle of the runway, and the pilot didn't want to run over him. "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."

I was on a pilgrimage to Cartagena, Colombia, to pray at the tomb of St. Peter Claver. The pilgrimage was organized by our Oakland branch of the Knights and Ladies of St. Peter Claver, the oldest African American Catholic fraternal organization in the United States.

I had always wanted to visit the shrine of St. Peter Claver — as he was one of the most heroic Jesuit saints we studied as novices. He called himself "The slave of the slaves forever!"

Born in 1580 in Spain, he volunteered to serve in the missions of the New World, especially in Cartagena. It was the major slave market port for South America.

Human beings, innocent men, women and children, were rounded up in Africa by slave hunters who imprisoned them in chains deep in the holds of slave ships. They were treated worse than animals — at least animals were well fed and given water. More than a third of the slaves died in route to Cartagena.

In Father Peter Claver's room in the Jesuit House, he had a one-foot small square window carved in the wall next to his bed — so that while lying in bed he could watch for the arrival of a slave ship on the horizon.

Immediately he would gather up bags of bread, fruit, medicine, oil, brandy and water — and whatever else he could beg. He would go down into the holds of the ship, where the living were still chained to the dead, everyone covered in excrement, to minister to them — to show them that someone loved and cared for them in the midst of a living hell.

When the slaves were off-loaded and put in pens in the slave market, he continued to bring them food and medicine. Using interpreters and vivid images of Jesus, Mary and the angels and saints, he provided instruction in the Catholic Faith — and baptized more than 300,000 slaves in his lifetime.

He then prevailed on their masters to treat them kindly, as they were fellow Christians. Father Claver followed up with his converts as they were moved inland to plantations — where, as a famous Jesuit preacher and retreat master — he was "wined and dined" by their owners. Yet he always preferred to sleep in the slave quarters with his beloved.

Powerless to end the evil of slavery, he gave his life to serve them.

Our Oakland group of pilgrims visited his rooms, and the infirmary he set up to care for sick slaves. We were able to see the baptismal font in the Jesuit gardens where he performed the 300,000 baptisms.

Yet the highlight was to celebrate Mass in the sanctuary of his basilica, where his body is on view in a glass case. At the foot of the pulpit, in front, there is a life-size statue of St. Peter Claver.

While I was preaching and speaking about his life, many local descendants of those Catholic slaves came in the church, and went right up and kissed and hugged his statue — and looked at him with loving eyes. It was one of the most beautiful things I have seen as a priest — and a living illustration of my homily.

I wondered how could people who considered themselves good Christians capture, buy and sell human beings as slaves? I also think that way about abortion in our age.

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