IMAGE: CNS photo/The Crosiers
By Barbara J. Fraser
LIMA, Peru (CNS) — When Pope
Francis visits Colombia in September, he will take his message of mercy and
reconciliation to Cartagena, a city that still bears scars of its painful
history as a slave port. And he will walk the streets where another Jesuit, St.
Peter Claver, put that message into practice four centuries ago.
Canonized in 1888, St. Peter
Claver is now considered the patron saint of human rights in Colombia. But
although the country abolished slavery in 1851 and passed a law prohibiting
discrimination in 1993, racism persists.
Many Afro-Colombians in
Cartagena, the “children of children of children of slaves … often
remain marginalized, abandoned by the government,” said Father Jorge
Hernandez, who works with Afro-Colombian communities in and around the city. “In
some neighborhoods, people don’t have running water. Inhumanity has become
The same is true in other Latin
American countries. Although about half the population of Brazil is of African
descent, Afro-Brazilians make up a disproportionate share of the poor
population, according to the 2010 census. Their salaries averaged one-half to
one-third those of white Brazilians.
On his last day in Colombia,
Sept. 10, Pope Francis will pray the Angelus outside of the sanctuary of St.
Peter Claver. The building where the missionary welcomed slaves, and which now
houses the saint’s relics, has also served as a school and a hospital.
After private prayer time in the
sanctuary, the pontiff will meet with fellow Jesuits.
Some people wonder if Pope
Francis will ask forgiveness for the church’s long acceptance of the slave
trade in the Americas. Father Hernandez said he hopes the pope will speak out
against modern forms of slavery, including human trafficking and slavery to
money and a consumer society.
The pope’s visit to Cartagena
will quietly highlight the persistent inequality in Latin America, which has
some of the highest income disparities in the world. Tourists flock to the
Caribbean city’s beach resorts, which contrast sharply with the poverty in
which most of the city’s large Afro-Colombian population still lives, said
Father Carlos Eduardo Correa, provincial superior of the Jesuits in Colombia.
“In Colombia, there are
still many human rights violations, especially of Afro-Colombian, indigenous
and poor communities, particularly in cultural, economic, social and
environmental rights, and rights to education, health and work,” Father
By the time the young Peter
Claver arrived in Cartagena from Spain in 1610, the slave trade was already booming.
More than 78,000 African slaves arrived between 1570 and 1640 — some 10,000 a
year. By some accounts, slaves made up half the population of Cartagena at the
After five years of studies in
Bogota, he returned to Cartagena, where he was ordained in 1616. Referring to
himself as “the slave of slaves,” he joined another Jesuit, Father
Alonso de Sandoval, who was outspoken about the injustice of slavery, and
continued that ministry after his companion was transferred to Peru in 1617.
At a time when the Catholic
Church did not speak out against enslavement of Africans in the Spanish
colonies, and when even some Jesuit superiors criticized his ministry, Father
Claver cajoled alms from wealthy residents of the city and used them to buy
food and medicine.
He met the traffickers’ ships at
the port, going first to aid children and the sick with the help of slaves he
knew in Cartagena, who spoke the new arrivals’ languages. His labor of
humanitarian care and catechesis continued in the squalid houses where traders
housed the slaves until they were sold or shipped to another port.
Pope Francis’ visit to the place
where St. Peter Claver lived, worked and finally died in 1654, after suffering
the same diseases that afflicted the people to whom he ministered, will be a
reminder that human rights are crucial for the country’s peace process after
decades of civil war.
Peace and reconciliation, Father
Correa said, will be possible “only when people recognize every person’s
dignity and every person’s importance as a human being, as St. Peter Claver
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Fraser covers Latin American
issues for Catholic News Service and will travel to Colombia for the pope’s
visit. Follow her on Twitter: @Barbara_Fraser.
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