St. Peter Claver Vespers
The Most Reverend Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
"In your kindness give me life." Psalm 119:88
At this solemn celebration of the diocesan patron, St. Peter Claver, I am moved to quote Psalm 119. "In your kindness give me life" (Psalm 119:88). The psalmist is speaking to God, of course, and complains about being persecuted. "How long can your servant survive?" he asks (Psalm 119:84). "The arrogant have dug pits for me," he protests (Psalm 199:85). He is desperate. He is on the point of death. His enemies, he cries, "...have almost ended my life on earth" (Psalm 119:87). The situation is indeed life and death. Then, he ends his lament with these words, "In your kindness give me life" (Psalm 119:88).
We would not exist without God's love. We learned this when we were children in catechism class. As a matter of fact, it is one of the dozen or so truths taught me as a child that I have carried with me all my life. The religion teacher phrased it this way, "If God stopped loving you, you would cease to exist." In the mind of a child, I thought to myself, well, that must mean that God loves me. I'm still here. And when I did something wrong, I didn't disappear into thin air. God must still love me. Such was the simplicity of a child's thought, but it communicated something profoundly true about how God is the source of all life. That realization was another way of expressing the truth of Psalm 119.
I cannot help but think that St. Peter Claver understood this truth very well. This saint of the 17th Century was born in Spain and entered the Jesuits, serving in the missions of Colombia at Cartagena. For thirty-eight years he labored in God's vineyard, but not the vineyard of a comfortable parish or an air-conditioned lecture hall. He expended his life working with and for African slaves, baptizing over 300,000 of them, providing for their needs, and acting in the capacity of advocate for them. When he died in 1654, he received the accolades of the high-born and the leadership of the Spanish colonial community. Such was not the case for most of his missionary life. Many were suspicious of his work, and no doubt, as the psalmist describes, pits were dug for him and his life was almost ended.
St. Peter Claver realized, however, the truth of the psalm's conclusion. "In your kindness give me life" (Psalm 119:88). God was the origin of all life. He had created the slaves and the people who oppressed them. God loved them all, and because of God's love, they existed. This was the great mystery.
Ultimately the realization of God's love as the source of existence is what motivates the Christian ethos. God's love is what energizes the commandment, "Love your enemies" (Luke 6:27). That supreme love is what should protect life in the womb and in the nursing home and in the homeless shelter. The understanding that all life is sacred is so elementary that it requires that the following statement be fulfilled: "Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:28). Those who work with the poor and the needy cannot do so if they do not first love their enemies. Without that fundamental knowledge that God loves them all, the oppressor as well as the oppressed, then the worker with the poor becomes a very angry person.
I think that St. Peter Claver loved those who persecuted him. He had too, because he could not have had the strength to help those he did. And from where did that strength come? From God, of course, and likewise from a deep understanding that all life is a gift from God and that without that love we would cease to exist.
In His kindness God has given us all life. The more deeply we reflect on that truth, the more deeply we come to know what it is we need to do. In short, we come to know God's will, as St. Peter Claver did. This is one reason, a major reason, why we must maintain the fundamental truth that life in all its forms is sacred. That insistence must be preferentially given to the unborn, because without that essential all other forms become non-essential. If we cannot protect the most vulnerable who are so because they cannot protect themselves at all, then how can we protect any vulnerable. "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them" (Luke 6:32). We must ask ourselves the serious question: Do we help those we see as less fortunate because they can acknowledge our charity? The works of charity do not exclude the existence of the self. A qualified embrace of life reveals a fundamental flaw in our understanding of God's love for us. If we pick and chose who it is we love, then we are not convinced completely that God loves us.
The more we come to understand and appreciate that God is the origin of all life, that He loves each, and that the existence of each depends on His love, then the great commandment of love becomes ever more possible to live, less qualified, and more complete. St. Peter Claver knew in the depth of his being that he had been given life through God's kindness. Then and only then could he embrace not only the poorest of the poor but also those who enslaved them. When the Spanish masters complained about St. Peter Claver taking their slaves away from their work and blamed him if they misbehaved, Father Claver is supposed to have said sympathetically, "What sort of a man must I be, that I cannot do a little good without causing so much confusion?" He worked not only with the enslaved but also in an apostolate among the Protestant traders and sailors, as well condemned criminals and Moslems. He knew no distinction. God had made them all. In His kindness, God had given them all life.