The Mortal Sin of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

For 9 September 2023, Memorial of St. Peter Claver, based on Colossians 1:21-23

(Photo: Detail of a sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo dedicated to the memory of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade at the entrance of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama)

When I first went online for hagiography about St. Peter Claver—whom I confess I naively and ignorantly imagined to be a Black man—I learned that he was a white priest from aristocratic Spain serving in the early seventeenth-century slave port of Cartagena, Columbia.
Once known as the Apostle to the Negroes and now known as the patron saint of African missions and interracial justice, Peter Claver would rush to the slave ships with food and medicine. Over a period of forty-five years, kidnapped and enslaved African men, women, and children disembarked from as many as sixteen or seventeen ships a year in Cartagena. During thirty-four of those years, Peter Claver baptized countless enslaved thousands, whose African names were discarded by their slaveholders, to be forgotten. He called himself “the slave of the slaves forever,” and this phrase has found its way into the opening prayer of today’s Mass:

O God, who made Saint Peter Claver a slave of slaves
and strengthened him with wonderful charity and patience
as he came to their help,
grant, through his intercession,
that, seeking the things of Jesus Christ,
we may love our neighbor in deeds and in truth.

I think theologian Katie M. Grimes would have a problem with this prayer. In an article published by Cambridge University Press, Grimes has pointed out that Peter Claver was a privileged white priest who owned and physically disciplined his enslaved translators and whose catechesis was laced with white supremacist tropes. In her article, Grimes cites, “Through the interpreters, he told them that they had come to them to be the Father of all them and to make sure they were well received in the land of the whites where they had just now arrived. He would give them many other reasons and words of love and fervor in order to alleviate them of the fear that . . . the whites had brought them to their lands in order to kill them and make butter from their flesh.”
In contrast to this kind of white supremacist catechetical ideology, I think about two of the great-grandmothers of my Resurrectionist friend, Fr. Manuel Williams, who were daughters or granddaughters of emancipated former slaves. Despite the “undaughtering” of their enslaved parents, their lives bore testimony to steadfast Christian faith and to the Power of the Holy Spirit freely given and freely received in baptism. Such faith contradicts and condemns the forced enslavement, forced labor, and even forced baptism experienced by millions in the transatlantic slave trade as practiced in Cartagena and in chattel slavery as practiced in the United States.
Yes, I have a problem with white supremacist hagiography. And yes, I deeply admire the authentic witness of the faith-filled Christian descendants of those countless enslaved ancestors whose names, even though lost to memory, are cherished in our hearts and the heart of God.
Perhaps we can proclaim the first reading of today’s Mass from chapter 1 of the Letter to the Colossians in the memory of our unjustly enslaved ancestors.

Colossians 1:21-23
Brothers and sisters:
You once were alienated and hostile in mind because of evil deeds;
God has now reconciled you
in the fleshly Body of Christ through his death,
to present you holy, without blemish,
and irreproachable before him,
provided that you persevere in the faith,
firmly grounded, stable,
and not shifting from the hope of the Gospel that you heard. . . .

Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

About Gregory Heille, O.P.

Gregory Heille, O.P., serves as Professor of Preaching and Evangelization and director of the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a friar of the Province of St. Albert the Great USA and has a particular interest in racial equity education.