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Saint Peter Claver and the Cardinal Virtues


Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.” ~ Groucho Marks

During his Homily on Luke’s rendition of the Beatitudes this morning (Luke 6:20-26), our Parochial Vicar called upon the cardinal virtues as one of the means by which we can embrace these Beatitudes and obtain the state of utmost bliss that living them will bring to our lives. Just hearing the words “cardinal virtues” sent my mind darting back to Sister Virginia Ann and 4th grade Religion Class at Saint Joseph’s School, which may very well have been the last time I‘ve even heard this topic broached or these words used for that matter.

The cardinal virtues, derived initially from Plato in The Republic (Book IV, 426–435), were first espoused by the prolific Bishop and Doctor of our Church Saint Ambrose in the late 300s. He identified the cardinal virtues as prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Ambrose’s protégée, said of the cardinal virtues “For these four virtues, I should have no hesitation in defining them: that temperance is love giving itself entirely to that which is loved; fortitude is love readily bearing all things for the sake of the loved object; justice is love serving only the loved object, and therefore ruling rightly; prudence is love distinguishing with sagacity between what hinders it and what helps it.“ Legendary author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, jokingly I presume, that “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people I have ever known.” Saint Peter Claver, the man whose Feast Day we celebrate today, possessed all four in abundance.

A Spanish Missionary Priest who ministered to the West African Slaves that were bought to the New World, Father Claver would go on to baptize nearly 300,000 African Slaves over the course of his 40 year priestly vocation. As slave ships entered the Port of Cartagena (modern day Columbia) by way of West Africa, he would make his way down to the ship’s overcrowded cargo hold where the chained slaves would be kept so that he could minister to the ill-treated and exhausted passengers. Conditions aboard the ship were so ghastly that an estimated 1/3 of the passengers in the hold died in route to Cartagena. After the slaves were herded out of the ship and caged in nearby yards, Father Claver moved quickly among them, armed with medicines, food, bread, brandy, lemons, and tobacco. With interpreters at his side offering him assistance, he gave them basic instructions and assured them of their dignity as a child of God.

In later years, Father Claver became gravely ill. Ironically enough, he was left to the care of a former slave, who in turn treated him terribly. Never once did he complain however, offering up his sufferings as his cross to bear for the sins he committed during his life. After four years of physical abuse, starvation and general neglect and mistreatment, Father Peter Claver would pass away on either September 8th or 9th in the year 1654. Sainthood was bestowed upon him by Pope Leo XIII in the year 1881. He is the Patron Saint of African Americans, African Missions, the Republic of Columbia and Interracial Justice.

This great Saint’s legacy lives on through the work of the Knights of Peter Claver, the largest predominantly black Cath­olic lay organization in the United States. With councils in 34 states, the District of Columbia and the San Andres Island of Colombia, Nationwide membership in the Knights of Saint Peter Claver is estimated at about 20,000. This includes a Ladies Auxiliary Group. Established in 1909 in an era of state-sanctioned racial and ethnic discrimination, the Knights of Peter Claver quickly evolved into a service organization for the entire family founded on Black Catholic spiritual insight and wisdom that is open to Catholics of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. Much like other Catholic fraternal orders such as the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Peter Claver are members of the worldwide International Alliance of Catholic Knights. These men and women are swift to offer faith-filled and thoughtful responses to the smoldering racial tensions that have dogged our Nation for far too many years.

On the recent death of George Floyd, a spokesman for the Knights of Saint Peter Claver said in part “The anger, emotions, and outrage must be followed by effective solutions that do more than just penalize murderous actions, but eliminate future ones. The ink has run dry on writing statements, and it is now time to write laws, to write policies, to write sentences.” If racial harmony and rectitude ever truly becomes a goal in this country, one in which the solution is rooted in such virtues as the aforementioned temperance, prudence, justice and honesty, you can rest assured that it will not come by way of vitriolic groups such as Black Lives Matter or the race hustling charlatans in Hugo Boss suits that fill the cable airwaves but instead through fraternal orders such as the Knights of Peter Claver. These cardinal virtues will serve as the pillar and thus lead the way.

Let us seek the intercession of Saint Peter Claver today and often, so that by his example we may always remember the dignity and decency owed to every born and unborn child of God.

“Dear Saint Peter Claver, you were permeated with compassion for the oppressed, for human beings sold as slaves. While alleviating their natural ills, you also took away their spiritual ills, and taught them the surpassing knowledge of Christ. Through your intercession, help us to see the true dignity of the human family, all children of one father, and to spend ourselves for their salvation.” ~ Amen

For a short take on Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes, please visit the following Reflection:

Saint Peter Claver, pray for us!


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