St. Peter Claver’s (1581-1654) style of sanctity furnishes something of a counterpoint to that of St. Alberto Hurtado, about whom I rhapsodized previously. Whereas St. Alberto happily demonstrates the compatibility of great sanctity with the pursuit of structural reform, St. Peter highlights the possibility of great sanctity without the same. In this sense, St. Peter is about as kindred a spirit to a Bl. Teresa of Calcutta or a St. Damian of Molokai as the Jesuits have ever known.
It was in fact this very quality that in 1947 prompted Sir Arnold Lunn, a British literary figure and convert to Catholicism, to publish a biography of St. Peter, Saint of the Slave Trade. The book succeeds admirably as straightforward hagiography, but also manages to transcend its genre by presenting Peter as a case study of Catholic sanctity. Lunn meditates on the “slave of the slaves,” not merely because his life inspires, but because St. Peter casts the essence of Christian holiness into deeper relief.
St. Peter did most of the things that would qualify him as a “secular saint”—á la MLK, Gandhi, or Ché. In Cartagena he treated compassionately Africans brutalized by unscrupulous colonial powers and labored manfully to soften the hearts of traders toward their human cargo. He brought the slaves refreshment as soon as they reached port, and insisted that European nobles line up behind them at his confessional. By his own (probably conservative) estimate, St. Peter baptized 300,000 men and women.
No gesture of love was too extravagant. In order to restore some sense of human dignity to the slaves, Peter used to descend into the stinking belly of the ships and kiss the “passengers’” festering sores. In order to protect their human dignity, on the other hand, St. Peter would compel publicly intoxicated slaves to lick the ground, placing his shoe lightly on their necks and asking aloud so that everyone could profit, “Who art thou, miserable creature, that thou dares attack heaven and offend the divine majesty?” St. Peter was at once more compassionate and more exigent than any save a saint would dream of being.
In these and in countless other ways, St. Peter positioned himself against the injustice that still constitutes the “original sin” of the American national psyche. Interestingly, however, Peter—unlike Bartolomé de las Casas and his other contemporaries—never agitated for structural reform or denounced slavery without qualification. The Church had not yet condemned all forms of servitude—and perhaps never has. Slavery was still permitted under certain circumstances: e.g., as a commuted sentence for POWs or for convicts of capital crimes. And the slaves who reaches Cartagena alive had often been sentenced on trumped up charges or captured in intertribal skirmishes. So Peter, despite his unquestionable love for the slaves, did not run ahead of the Church. He contented himself with mitigating cruelties and baptizing the unwashed masses—efforts that would perhaps today be reckoned myopic and haphazard.
The horrors of the slave trade, of course, continued long after St. Peter’s death.
As Lunn first recognized, St. Peter’s life allows us to draw the distinction between the saint and the humanitarian with a certain finesse. St. Peter certainly did work that even contemporary humanitarians would esteem, but his patient obedience to the Church suggests that he was animated by different principles. And while heroic holiness can certainly be worked out in humanitarian fields—even in the struggle for structural reform, as St. Alberto demonstrates—measurable humanitarian progress is not its defining criterion. Charity and obedience to God’s will are together the soul of sanctity, and the particular work to be “ensouled” by saintly love is assigned by God’s mysterious providence. That is why the lack of obedience and love does not hinder the secular saint in his proper mission, so long as he manages to “make a difference;” whereas the failure to “make a difference” does not hinder the Christian saint in his proper mission, so long as he manages to obey and love.