It was supposed to be a brief escape from the January blast of a Canadian winter. However, Cartagena, Colombia offered me more than what I had anticipated.
The usual holiday mode clicked in on arrival, but a shuttle into the downtown area brought me face to face with a saintly reality. All I heard was that we were going to Saturday evening Mass at a church half an hour away from where we were staying. Our walk down narrow streets lined with age old houses, and balconies cascading brightly colored bougainvillea, finally brought us to the square on which stood the famous San Pedro Claver cathedral.
What I had read about St. Peter Claver suddenly became very real. I was walking on holy ground! Standing in front of the remains of this saint encased within the high altar, I prayed fervently for all. Here I was so close to someone who had dedicated himself to the Blacks. He had become the father, nurse, comforter, and evangelizer of a suffering people. No wonder he was called the Slave of the Slaves! He had said, “I want to spend my whole life working to save souls and to die for them,” and that is exactly what he did during the 40 plus years of his apostolate.
Mass was about to begin, so I reluctantly left, to return later to exclaim how in 1615 St. Peter Claver was ordained at this very cathedral’s side altar at the right of the sanctuary. My quiet reflection was interrupted by people getting ready for a wedding. The main aisle was suddenly alight with candlelabra with actual candles burning, and flowers flowing from big arrangements.
I was forced to step out of the church and into the square, where I encountered horse drawn carriages and wedding guests in all their finery. Dodging the street vendors I stood by a huge statue of this Jesuit saint. I hungered for more, so in true Ignatian fashion I was transported into another age and time, where I could experience the life of the apostle to the slaves.
Climbing up to the harbor front, it was not cruise ships I saw, but St. Peter Claver welcoming Negro slaves who had arrived at Cartagena de Indias, an important Spanish trade centre in the New World, and a main slave port. In my imagination I saw this saintly man serving these slaves with love, charity, and patience amid the smells and heat.
Saints I know are usually humble people, but St. Peter Claver was an example par excellence of humility. It is said that he kissed the sores of the sick people with his own lips, and was very present to the dying and those rejected by society. His love for the people whom he had baptized and prayed for, drove him to reach out even when he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. What was amazing was his desire to hear confessions, despite the fact that latterly his feet and hands were semi-paralyzed and he had to be carried to the confessional.
A tour of Cartagena took us to the usual tourist spots including San Felipe Fortress and Popa convent to absorb the history, and Caribbean color and culture. However, it is not the smell of freshly brewed Colombian coffee that lingers, but the spirit of a saint whose feast we celebrate on September 9th. Edified by St. Peter Claver’s life and work, in humility I whisper, “St. Peter Claver, pray for us.”