Friday 8 September 2017

To Serve the Least

Tomorrow, of course, is our Indian Bazaar day at the College. For some six-and-a-half decades, friends and co-workers of Jesuit Mission have been rallying to support firstly our Province Mission to Hazaribag in India and, more recently, the many missionary endeavours in East Asia, Oceania and Africa as well.

But the day also marks the feast day of St Peter Claver SJ, that heroic Spanish missionary to Central America who spent his life caring for the victims of the slave trade that his fellow countrymen and other nations were so abusing. One of our Houses here has taken him as Patron.

As a young Jesuit studying philosophy in Majorca, Peter met the wisest of spiritual guides, the ageing Br Alfonso Rodríguez. Alfonso, later to become a saint, was the humble doorkeeper. He listened to Peter’s hopes and deep desires and first suggested to him that the Americas might be his mission. “Why don’t you go there, too, and gather souls for Christ?” Peter volunteered and, during his theological studies in Spain, he was missioned to Cartagena, in present-day Colombia. He was later ordained there.

Cartagena was one of two Spanish-American ports to receive the slave ships from west Africa. Some 10,000 slaves were brought to Cartagena each year. When each ship arrived, Peter begged fruits, biscuits and sweets from the city providores for the human cargo. Also, wine for bathing wounds. The slaves would have spent most of the harsh journey chained below decks, branded like cattle, often diseased, in squalid conditions. A third usually died in transit. Conditions were so foul that Peter’s assistants could only stay in the hold for fifteen minutes at most. But Peter remained until all were washed, fed or had any wounds treated. He used translators to help him, often surprising the fearful prisoners with his care and an embrace. In one of his letters to fellow Jesuits back home he wrote, “This was how we spoke to them, not with words but with our hands and our actions.” He was echoing Ignatius’ adage that love was expressed more in deeds than in words.

Peter had to work quickly as there was often little time between the arrival of the slaves and their sale. Some he welcomed into the faith. Towards the end of his life, in answer to an enquiry, he estimated he had baptised more than 300,000 slaves. He continued this extraordinary work for some forty years. During that time, he took his final vows as Jesuits do. Movingly, he signed his vow document, Petrus Claver, Aethiopum semper servus (“Peter Claver, slave of the black slaves forever”). And he was.

Towards the end of Peter’s life, the plague ravaged Cartagena and surrounding districts. The Jesuits were hard pressed to carry out their ministries. So they arranged for a former slave to care for the frail Peter. But this fellow was callous and neglectful. He would steal the best portions of Peter’s food, not attend to his needs, and even physically bully and abuse him. When Peter was on his sick bed, the carer refused to bathe or tend him. But Peter complained to no one – the mistreatment was only much later discovered. In his characteristically unselfish ways, Peter accepted the hardships. Some have suggested he took it all upon himself, in some mystical way, in atonement for all that the white landowners and the white middle classes or the white politicians had cruelly inflicted on their African slaves. Peter died like one of those slaves and perhaps that is what he desired.

Earlier this week, in an out-of-court settlement, the government agreed to compensate 1900 asylum seekers who are current or former detainees on Manus Island. The settlement was $70 million (plus $20+ million in costs). The government, of course, called its decision to settle “prudent”. Naturally, it blamed the opposition. But in settling in this way, it avoided an embarrassing public exposé of the brutal life and shameful conditions of asylum seekers. This settlement, they reminded us, was not an admission of guilt or liability. Of course not.

The detainees in their class action had claimed false imprisonment with subsequent degrading and cruel treatment. In their submission, they described their facilities as dirty, overcrowded and overheated. It was alleged they were subject to violent and anti-social behaviour. Other complaints included insufficient potable water and lack of hygiene products and medical treatment.

Yes, it would all have been déjà vu for Peter Claver.

Fr Ross Jones, SJ