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Friday, September 9, 2011

St Peter Claver, Slave of the Slaves

"We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips." St. Peter Claver

The feast of St. Peter Claver is one I always enjoy celebrating, first because Fr. Peter Claver Eich was my vocation director.  That Fr. Peter Claver was also a great athlete did not hurt his invitation to me to consider becoming a Capuchin.  But even more important, St Peter Claver attracted me because of his heroic life and the service he offered to slaves in what today is Cartegena, Columbia. Leaving his home in Spain, never to return, St Peter Claver's bold spirit captured my youthful imagination and spoke to me of possibilities that I did not want to consider.  After all, I fancied myself as an athlete, and in the words of an early basketball coach, would someday “make a difference at center court.”  Never mind that I was 5’ 9” and slow.  I understood basketball from the inside and dreamed of playing professionally.  

The story of St. Peter Claver’s life made me reconsider my priorities and forced me to think beyond sports to a world of religious heroism.  Here was a man who spent almost forty years on the docks of Cartagena waiting to care for slaves who had been so badly treated on their journey from Africa that one third of them died in transit.  As soon as the slaves landed, Peter would rush to them with medicine, food and (dare I say it) tobacco.  As he himself said, "We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips."(1)

What a powerful sentiment!  That we must speak to people with our hands before we announce the gospel to them remains powerful advice.  Especially today, when the church is under such a cloud because of the sexual abuse of children by priests, we would do well to listen more and speak less. As the book of Lamentations reminds us, "It is good to hope in silence for the Lord's deliverance." (3:30) While we cannot fail to announce the truths of our faith tradition, especially about justice for all, we ought to do so with a soft voice and strong, loving hands.  Our actions for justice will convince more people about the gospel compunction we feel than all the words in the Bible.

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