In Caribbean Colombia, Jesuits try to continue legacy of St. Peter Claver

IMAGE: CNS photo/David Agren

By David Agren

Colombia (CNS) — Outside St. Peter Claver Parish in this colonial city on the
Caribbean coast, Afro-Colombian women in colorful attire sell chopped fruit to
tourists. Once tourists pay for papaya and pineapple, some ask for photos,
which the women oblige, placing a fruit basket on their heads and posing for a

Father Jorge Hernandez sees the scene unfold on a daily basis outside the
Jesuit-run parish just inside the walls of Cartagena’s old city — and it
bothers him.

a situation of strong discrimination here in Cartagena,” said Father
Hernandez, who works with Afro-Colombian communities. “There’s strong
racial discrimination, a lack of opportunities. They’re often not included.”

Francis concludes his five-day visit to Colombia in Cartagena Sept. 10. There,
he is sure to refer to St. Peter Claver, a fellow Jesuit who promoted human
rights and fought slavery. He also will pray the Angelus outside the parish
where St. Peter watched slave ships arrive in the late 1500s and offered humane
treatment to those arriving against their will.

communities live in the periphery of Cartagena, in shabby barrios with rutted
roads, inadequate city services and ocean access coveted by developers wishing
to evict them from their lands to build hotels.

seldom attain senior positions in Colombian institutions, including the
Catholic Church. The Afro-Colombian communities have been traditionally overlooked,
suffered discrimination and, like the population at large, been impacted
negatively in the country’s five decades of armed conflict.

community is “overwhelmingly underrepresented” in society and
government “and hugely overrepresented in the displaced population,”
said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“They’re estimated to be between 10 percent and 25 percent of the
population, but have no members of congress … and only recently have the been
able to organize politically.” He said that when Colombia rewrote its
constitution in 1991, indigenous groups got representation in the legislative assembly,
but “had to represent the Afro-Colombians,” who had no representation.

On the
Sept. 9 feast day of St. Peter Claver, Pope Francis urged less passivity from
Colombian Catholics and urged them to follow the saint’s example, providing
pastoral attention to and pushing for the rights of the most marginalized.

In a
Mass in the city of Medellin, the pope said the saint “understood, as a
disciple of Jesus, that he could not remain indifferent to the suffering of the
most helpless and mistreated of his time, and that he had to do something to
alleviate their suffering.”

In the
early 1600s St. Peter Claver, originally from Spain’s Catalonia region, traveled
to Cartagena, where thousands of slaves arrived from Africa each year to work
in Colombia’s mines. He would greet the slaves in the squalor of the ships that
brought them from sub-Saharan Africa; he provided them with food, medicine and doses
of dignity.

in Cartagena say insensitivity to Afro-Colombians continues to this day, even
if slavery was abolished. Some poor communities were walled-off by the local
government to prevent Pope Francis — who speaks of a poor church and putting
the poor first — from seeing any possible marginalization.

government only worries about this tourist area,” Father Carlos Correa,
Jesuit provincial in Colombia, said of the walled portion of Cartagena, where
pristine streets are lined with remarkably preserved colonial-era buildings.

Jesuits are trying to keep alive St. Peter Calver’s legacy; they run two
parishes in the area and work with five Afro-Colombian communities.

mission is to help people grow in the faith, but a faith based in justice,”
Father Correa said. “This is justice, which in Colombia, has to do with

and Afro-Colombians marched in a seaside procession Sept. 9 to honor St. Peter
Claver, before celebrating an up-tempo Mass, in the tradition of Caribbean sections
of Colombia. Some marchers carried signs, “St. Peter Claver was our human
rights defender.”

saint’s legacy is still remembered and celebrated in Cartagena.

not as notorious as before … (but) there is still discrimination,” said
Laura Gomez, a 19-year-old student from an Afro-Colombian community.

said she hoped the pope’s visit would bring about change in Cartagena and
Colombia as a whole, along with “an awareness that we are all equals and
we can live in harmony.”

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Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero.

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