The Humility of St. Peter

Though St. Peter Claver, SJ (1581-1654), was a very holy and remarkable man, he was “forgotten” during his earthly life in the very city in which he toiled: Cartagena, Colombia. How is it possible to overlook someone who worked tirelessly for four decades—baptizing an estimated 300,000 slaves, visiting them frequently on their various plantations, and hearing perhaps 200,000 of their confessions in his lifetime? The explanation of both his pastoral success and his being forgotten is in large part the virtue of humility.

He showed the slaves how to take their humiliation and convert it to true humility. He did not so much fight slavery in itself. Rather, he helped its victims transcend it, just as the Lord Jesus redeemed us by entering into slavery and conquering it with humble obedience to the Father. As St. Paul says,  

[Jesus Christ], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped at; rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him. . .” (Philippians 2:5-9).

In imitation of Christ who became a slave, St. Peter endeavored to become—in the words he chose to describe himself—“the slave of the Negroes forever.” The transformation wasn’t easy. Among the many obstacles he faced were the slaves’ strong resentment of Europeans, many of whom were presumably Christian. Even more immediate were the physical needs of the slaves. Many emerged from the long ocean voyage weakened by inhuman conditions, malnutrition, and disease. But Claver’s lesson of humility meant that our self-understanding should be one whose fundamental relationship is not to any fellow man, but to God, and that every one of us is spiritually dependent on Him. Spiritually then, our perspective should always be one of humility and deep gratitude.

St. Peter did not rely on raw do-gooder zeal but methodical forethought and the cooperation of others in God’s providence: In caring for the slaves’ physical needs, he directed those with him to “speak to [the slaves] first with our hands, before we try to speak to them with our lips.” He enlisted many helpers (humbly realizing that alone, he was practically powerless in such an extensive task) and the goodwill of his fellow Jesuits and many benefactors to bring food, medical treatment, and other necessities to the slaves.

In teaching the faith, he instructed not through clever oratory but through translators and often through holding up pictures. Even these conveyed humility: Jesus suffering on the cross for sinful man—thus meeting oppression and cruelty with self-sacrificial love; an illustration of hell—thus showing what we humans, as sinners, deserve; and pictures of many powerful people rejoicing over a lowly, newly baptized African—thus illustrating the universality of human dignity and the call to conformity to Christ.

Finally, St. Peter showed humility in prayer. He himself led a life of serious devotion and prayer which he passed along to those he baptized. He would take time to instruct them over and over on how to make the sign of the cross and to memorize simple prayers of love and repentance. In this, Claver’s effort itself testified that God in His infinite goodness was deserving of all of man’s worship: of his sacrifices, praise, and gratitude.

St. Peter Claver was able to give these slaves back their dignity by giving them a relationship to God in baptism, and showing them how to maintain and further that relationship through a life of faith, virtue, and prayer. Everything he did in the process—from bringing their basic necessities (food, clothing, medical care, etc.) to preaching about God, to leading them in the life of prayer and virtue—deflected their learned hatred of white men, missionaries and priests included.  In all this, St. Peter Claver’s humility also prevented any potential idolization of himself, since it pointed clearly beyond him, since his own life was ordered to God. In converting the humiliation and suffering of over a quarter million slaves in Cartagena to humility and faith, the “slave of the Negroes” showed them how to be “set free from sin and [become] slaves of God, [and receive] sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:22). St. Peter Claver, pray for us.

Image: St. Peter Claver

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Br. Pier Giorgio Dengler, O.P.

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Br. Pier Giorgio Dengler grew up in the outskirts of New York City. His undergraduate degree in German and Russian studies from Fordham University was supplemented by studies at the University of Salzburg, Austria. He went on to pursue language disorders and earned his Masters in Speech and Language Pathology from Columbia University’s Teachers College. He entered the Dominicans in 2011. On