Marking the Sept. 9 feast day of St. Peter Claver with a Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in St. Inigoes, Maryland, Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory urged Catholics to recognize reflections of Christ in others, just as that saint saw Christ in the enslaved Africans he served.

“Is that not the challenge that we face today as Catholics, caught up in this very volatile social moment?” Archbishop Gregory asked. “Like Peter Claver, are we not called to see Christ in every face and to hear him in every voice, no matter what race or ethnic backgrounds those faces and voices may represent?” 

The noon Mass was celebrated at the historically Black Catholic church in Southern Maryland that was formed in the early 1900s, after Black parishioners experienced racism from White Catholics at a nearby church. The Mass was part of a nationwide Day of Fasting and Prayer called for by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to acknowledge the sin of racism and to seek racial justice and healing. 

The USCCB had also called on Catholics to pray and fast for an end to racism on Aug. 28, the same day as the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. The exhortation from the nation’s bishops followed the news of violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, spurred by video of a police officer shooting an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back seven times, paralyzing him.

“As we raise these important questions in our lives at this moment in time, let us focus on the issues that really matter,” Archbishop Gregory said during his homily. 

Like the other people attending the Sept. 9 Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in St. Inigoes, Maryland, a woman wears a face mask, following recommended safety precautions against the spread of the coronavirus. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The day’s readings — in which the prophet Isaiah equates fasting with breaking the chains of the enslaved and Jesus tells his disciples that when they feed the hungry and visit the prisoner, they are ministering to Him — are filled with “life-saving warnings” from God, the archbishop said. 

Archbishop Gregory said Isaiah’s warning “is particularly appropriate for this moment in our nation’s struggle for racial harmony and justice because it focuses our attention on our own hearts and actions, rather than mere symbols, as important as symbols may be. The Gospel message from Matthew encourages us to see with the eyes of Christ and to be saved.” 

The archbishop said the call to see Christ in others is the same warning found in the Gospel of Matthew, “as we confront and pledge ourselves to overcome any racist attitudes within our own hearts and lives. Matthew had Jesus offering to his disciples and pointedly, therefore, to all of us, of the dangers of hatred, neglect, and hard-heartedness for others.” 

Archbishop Gregory celebrates the Sept. 9, 2020 Mass at St. Peter Claver Church in St. Inigoes, Maryland, on a day when U.S. bishops encouraged the nation's Catholics to pray and fast for an end to racism. Archbishop Gregory was installed as the archbishop of Washington in 2019, becoming the first African American prelate to lead the Archdiocese of Washington. In his years as a bishop, he has been a leading voice in the U.S. Catholic Church for racial justice. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

It was a doorman at a Jesuit university in Mallorca, Archbishop Gregory told congregants, who taught St. Peter Claver how to see with the eyes of Christ. The wisdom and humility of the porter, St. Alphonso Rodriguez, changed the path of Claver’s life forever, he said. 

St. Peter Claver was born into a privileged family in 15th century Catalonia, and many assumed he was intended for great things in the Church. When he met Rodriguez, however, the young Jesuit’s vision of the world changed completely, and he was prompted to volunteer to minister to Africans in slavery. 

St. Peter Claver ministered to Africans when the boats carrying them arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, and followed them to the plantations where they would be forced to work. 

“Peter Claver was a missionary with a dynamic mission,” Archbishop Gregory said. “It seems to me that it was such a clear focus that allowed Peter to rush to the harbor of Cartagena to greet thousands upon thousands of people, not as human cargo, but as brothers and sisters.” 

For 40 years, the Spanish Jesuit offered enslaved people food and medicine and tended to the sick and dying. He pleaded with plantation owners to treat their workers humanely. St. Peter Claver also instructed Africans in the Catholic faith, ministered the sacraments to them and baptized an estimated 300,000 people. 

When St. Peter Claver died, the people of Cartagena came in great numbers to the Jesuit convent where he lived for the wake, and took little bits of his cassock. His body was dressed in three different cassocks, since people kept taking scraps as mementos of his holy life.

“May we find a memento of Peter Claver that we take home to our families and to live the life of faith that he did so perfectly,” he said. 

At the end of the Mass, Archbishop Gregory read a prayer that he and Washington Auxiliary Bishops Mario E. Dorsonville, Roy E. Campbell, Jr. and Michael W. Fisher wrote, which he encouraged Catholics to pray “with a heart intent on healing our nation and bringing peace and harmony to our communities and families.” 

Family members attend Archbishop Gregory's Sept. 9 Mass at St. Peter Claver in St. Inigoes, Maryland. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Written for Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington, the prayer titled “Our Family Family Prayer for Justice and Human Dignity,” asks God to help Americans battle against the country’s “original sin” of racism that continues to divide the Body of Christ. 

The prayer asks God to “bless parents that they may form their children in faith, to love one another regardless of skin color, ethnicity and national origin, just as Jesus loves us.”

Seeking Mary’s intercession to help members of the archdiocese “continue to witness to the Gospel message of life and dignity of all people,” the prayer also asks God to “give us the courage, compassion, and perseverance to root out any form of injustice within our communities and to bring the healing love of Christ to all in need.”

Father Scott Woods, the pastor of St. Peter Claver Parish in St. Inigoes, gives Communion to a woman during the Sept. 9, 2020 feast day Mass for the parish's patron saint, whom Archbishop Gregory said offered an enduring example of seeing Christ in others. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Following the rash of highly publicized police killings of unarmed Black men and women this year, and inspired by the 57th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington, Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, the chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, invited the faithful to pray the rosary and the conference’s Prayer Service for Racial Healing, and to ask for the intercession of saints who fought for racial equality, including St. Peter Claver.

“We must continue to engage the battle against the current evils of our society and in the words of Dr. King, refuse to believe ‘that the bank of justice is bankrupt,’” Bishop Fabre said in the August statement.

“Dr. King’s dream, as he himself said, is deeply rooted in the American Dream,” he continued. “Let us not forget the price that he and so many courageous witnesses of all faiths and creeds paid to bring us to this moment.”

To mark that anniversary of the March on Washington, Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s celebrated an Aug. 28 Mass of Peace and Justice at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. 

At that Mass, Archbishop Gregory announced the Archdiocese of Washington's new initiative, “Made in God’s Image: Pray and Work to End the Sin of Racism,” which will promote pastoral activities and outreach including prayer, listening sessions, faith formation opportunities and social justice work.