Saint Josephine Bakhita, more relevant today than ever

As Pope Francis has continued to raise awareness and urge Catholics to collaborate with other Christian communities, as well as political and NGO bodies, to end the scourge of human trafficking, there has been increased attention paid to Saint Josephine Bakhita and her connection to these issues.

The feast day of Bakhita’s death, Feb. 8, has become increasingly associated with Christian responses to the plight of human trafficking and contemporary slavery. Though many Americans think slavery ended with the abolition of the atrocious Middle Passage era, in fact millions of people today live the dehumanizing reality of being bought, sold, trafficked and exploited as the “property” of others.

Bakhita was one such person. Kidnapped from her home in southern Sudan, she lost the historical memory of the name given her by her parents, and so adopted the Arabic word for “lucky” or “fortunate,” the nickname given her by her captors. As a child, she was permanently marked by her kidnappers, tattooed against her will, with salt rubbed in the wounds for weeks afterward. Eventually she was sold to an Italian in Khartoum. Following this new “family” back to Italy, she was drawn to the spirituality of the Canossian sisters near Venice, as they had been given the responsibility of educating the baby in the family. Through these religious women, she was eventually baptized into the Catholic Church in 1890, and adopted the name Josephine (Giuseppina).

Legal wrangling eventually led to her freedom in the still relatively young Italian state, and so she decided to remain in the country of her own volition and to enter the community of Saint Magdalene of Canossa. She lived in the mission house of Schio, near Verona, of Romeo and Juliet fame, for four decades. Her humble cheerfulness and commitment to preparing religious nuns to work in the missions of Africa (where Christian populations exploded over the course of the 20th century) inspired both the members of her order, and the wider public. When she died in 1947, thousands of locals showed up to pay their respects.

Bakhita once famously said she would kiss the hands of her captors if given the chance, for through them she was brought to faith in Christ. Such generosity of spirit cannot be confused with an unwillingness to exert our energy and resources to bring full human flourishing and authentic emancipation to all of God’s people. Trust in the goodness and mercy of God, as characterized the life of Bakhita, does not excuse us from these demands, but rather enables us to emulate him who came to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “to set the captives free” (Lk 4).

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D. teaches at Loyola University. Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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