Rev. Aidan McAleenan, Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, and Very Rev. James Matthews at the altar of the St. Peter Claver church in Cartagena.
My amazing pilgrimage to honor St. Peter Claver
After 2½-years of planning meetings, prayer for God's guidance and advertising, the time arrived to embark on this life-changing experience; June 4, 2017.
Having traveled to Europe twice in the '80s on a concert cathedral tour at Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, Lincoln Minster and the birthplace of minister-hymnist, John Wesley; and to Notre Dame Cathedral in France; South Africa for six weeks in 1997, and a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City in 2006, I was a relatively seasoned world traveler.
But I had great expectations and a desire to bring home some comfort and reassurance to a hurting community of undocumented immigrants, victims of human trafficking, homeless people, and all those facing critical situations, that God already has a plan for His creation. God has provided us with intercessory saints, angels, His own Mother, and our saintly ancestors for any predicament related to life and human dignity in this world, if we ask Him and pray for His guidance.
Upon confirmation that we had three ordained clergy joining our pilgrimage for a total of 14, and that Most Rev. Michael C. Barber SJ., bishop of Oakland, would be joining us on June 7, I knew God had something miraculous in store for us; this was to be a truly evangelizing journey.
Upon boarding brand new international aircraft from SFO, we arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, seven hours later on June 5 and checked into the most elegant hotel; we were treated like royalty.
The hotel office staff graciously printed additional copies of our liturgical order of Mass, (14 pages each for 15 people), at no charge and with a smile. I had prepared our own order of Mass before leaving home so that whatever languages our daily Masses were, we had our own.
When we were in Mexico City at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 2006, we had made extra copies of music that we sang in the Basilica de Guadalupe. The resident nuns heard us and asked if they could have copies of our music. We were delighted to accommodate them. That 2006 trip to Mexico City was the inspiration to have our own liturgy in Cartagena at our daily Masses with the Very Rev. James V. Matthews, Rev. Aidan McAleenan and Deacon Earl Johson. Deacon Earl and I recited the Litany of St. Peter Claver at each Mass prior to the arrival of Bishop Barber.
When Bishop Barber celebrated our Mass at the Church of St. Peter Claver, he initiated the Litany of St. Peter Claver after his homily. I shall never forget the resonant sound and pristine diction of Bishop Barber.as he chanted the Litany of St. Peter Claver and our responses (Pray for us) ascending with the incense to heaven at the altar and shrine of St. Peter Claver.
I have no doubt our prayers of thanksgiving and reconciliation were received by God, our Blessed Mother Mary, St. Peter Claver and the hosts of angels and saints in Heaven. I know that God hears the cry of the poor and that we will continue to serve by sharing the Good News to all who will hear us.
We saw young Colombians hugging the statue of St. Peter Claver with such gratitude to God as they entered the church. That reverence and gratitude is one thing that we must remember to give God; the more we praised and thanked God for the blessings of this pilgrimage, the more blessings we received.
We arrived in Panama City, Panama on June 10, after an hour's flight from Colombia to the most luxurious Waldorf-Astoria hotel where we were greeted in the lobby with tall stem glasses of cold tropical punch, even before we were registered (again treated like royalty).
When we arrived on the Panama Canal, we were allowed on the main deck to observe the ships docked and waiting to enter the locks. Tourists are not allowed on the main deck, but through the grace of God, there we were waving up at the tourists behind glass windows on the upper decks.
We went into the classroom with the docent and observed how the cargo ships were loaded with containers of commerce for the world and how much financial and perishable produce would be lost without the canal, due to the long and treacherous trip from the Atlantic Ocean down to Cape Horn and up the Pacific Ocean and on to the ports of North and South America, the Caribbean and other commercial ports. It dawned on me why the work of St. Peter Claver, and his fellow ministers, like St. Louis Bertrand, and others was so vital during the 17th and 18th centuries when the Africans were the human cargo of that era, forcefully captured to pioneer the world.
With the long and treacherous journey, packed like sardines, the human cargo barely survived the journey. By the time the human cargo ships reached Cartagena, the human beings were in great distress from malnutrition, sores and general maltreatment; the men of God could not stop slavery, but no doubt many of our ancestors throughout the Diaspora would not have survived were it not for the ministry of Sts. Louis Bertrand, Peter Claver and others.
The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary held its 101st National Convention in New Orleans. in July 2016 at the Riverside Hilton Hotel. There was a large Carnival cruise ship docked there on the Mississippi. River, I realized that this was the same route that the slave ships would have come for the auctions along the ports of the south, and that many of our ancestors would not have survived were it not for the ministry of St. Peter Claver.
St. Peter Claver was born in Verdu, Spain on June 26, 1580. He entered the Society of Jesus on Aug. 7, 1602, and sailed to Colombia on April 15, 1610. St. Peter Claver received orders to minister in Cartagena on March 19, 1616. He died in Cartagena de Indies on Sept. 8, 1654; his saintly virtues were declared on Sept. 24, 1747; he was beatified on July 20, 1850, and was canonized by Pope Leo XIII on Jan. 15, 1888. His feast day is celebrated on Sept. 9 annually.
The Cloister where San Pedro Claver lived, watched for the slave ships to come into the port, and died, is a special holy place of silence and reflection; his shrine is a part of world history where all humanity can learn about human dignity, human rights and social justice.
We viewed the remains of St. Peter Claver, encased in glass, at the high altar in the beautiful baroque church of St. Peter Claver. The city was being painted and repaired in preparation for the September visit of the Holy Father, Pope Francis. We shared the excitement of some young Jesuit seminarians walking about the city in groups. After sightseeing and touring the beautiful aviary in Panama City, we returned home from this wonderful pilgrimage on June 13.
God has a plan for us all, especially through our perilous times. That includes the victims and loved ones of senseless crimes and of mass murderers, the natural disasters and losses due to floods, famines and fires, etc. Let us remember the prophet Job and how God restored his many losses ("double for his trouble"). To God be the Glory!
(Regina Wilkerson is a lay pastoral minister and past president of Court 127 of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver. An abbreviated version of this story appears in the Oct. 23 issue of The Catholic Voice.)
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