Date: February 8, 2023
By: Maria N.
In John Paul II's canonization homily of St. Josephine Bakhita on October 1, 2000, he declared St. Josephine Bakhita "our Universal Sister". It is not hard to see the sentiment behind this statement when we think of the Pope's own experience, one of lifelong suffering, loss, and fighting against tyranny and oppression caused by a Communist government. Her many sufferings and struggles is what makes St. Josephine relatable.
For me, she has been a source of inspiration in the way one sees how much she endured and was tormented. But through all this she remained jovial, peaceful, faithful and acquired formidable inner strength. Her faith was so resolute and steady. She learned that The Master had suffered and died for her out of love and she readily believed and lived in that freedom of being loved and did not waver from it. St. Josephine is whom I look to when I am tempted to waver, when I allow my emotions to shake the reality that I am loved for all eternity.
St. Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869 in Darfur, Sudan, to a happy, prosperous, and free family. Bakhita was the niece of the village chief. In her biography, she describes her family life as being a joyful one, saying, "I had had a very happy life, never knowing what it meant to suffer" (1).
When she was still a child, about seven or eight years old, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders while playing in her family's field. We don't know her real name since she forgot her birth name and went by the ironic, cruel nickname her captors gave her, which was Bakhita - meaning "fortunate one".
She was forced to walk 600 miles, barefoot in the desert, soon after being captured. She was bought and sold about two times during that time.
In the next ten years that followed, she was sold and traded twelve times. She was treated like property and was seen as less than human. She was mistreated and tortured throughout this time by her slave owners. She was left with 114 scars because of a branding ritual done to her to mark her as a slave of a Turkish general.
The Italian consul in Sudan, Calisto Legnani, bought Josephine in 1883. A couple of years later he traveled to Italy with her and eventually gifted her to his friend, Augusto Michieli. One of Bakhita's many responsibilities was to walk Augusto's young son to school. He attended a school run by the Canossian Sisters.
She was given a crucifix by Illuminato Checchini, the Michieli's property manager. Prior to being a property manager, Checchini was a big advocate for social justice. He introduced St. Josephine to Christianity, and he and his family later became a surrogate family for her in the interim. Around this time, the Michieli family needed to tend to their business in Suakin, Sudan, and had to leave Italy.
Providentially, through the persuasion of Checchini, St. Josephine was left at the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice. She was in the care of the Canossian Sisters for one year for what was intended to be a short stay. During this time, St. Josephine continued to learn about the person of Christ, and here is where she embraced Christianity in a deeper way. Being taught by the Sisters, St. Josephine first heard the most radical, liberating message in history: Christ had died for her, and she was beloved from all eternity by Him, whom she recognized as "that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who he was"(2). This is such a testament that God truly desires to reveal himself to everyone. She came to understand the profound truth that God, and not man, is the true Master of every human being, and of every human life. This experience became a source of great wisdom for this humble daughter of Africa. She referred to God as her Paron, which means "master".
When the Michieli family briefly came back to Italy, they intended to take St. Josephine back with them on their return to Africa. Newly converted and finding her voice, as well as one month away from being baptized, St. Josephine stood up to them and refused to go. It needs to be pointed out how radical of a conviction St. Josephine had to have been able to stand up to her "owners". Most of her life she had been conditioned to see herself as a servant and slave, and not to be expected to have any rights and equality. She didn't want to leave the family of Sisters, her first family she knew since being abducted, but more importantly she believed that she "didn't want to leave the house of the Lord. It would be [her] ruin" (2). She found solace and strength in front of Christ crucified, and before the icon of the black Madonna della Salute Venezia, which was placed prominently in that convent.
The Canossian Sisters helped her file suit in the Italian courts for St. Josephine's freedom. The Cardinal Patriarch of Venice also stood in court in her defense. Many influential people were involved, both to defend St. Josephine's freedom, and others to perpetuate her slavery, including powerful civil and military authorities. Through God's intervention, St. Josephine was proclaimed officially free, since slavery had been banned in Sudan and Italy for years, and that included the time before she had been abducted.
With her new found freedom, in 1890, she chose to enter the Catholic Church, and she was baptized as Josephine Margaret Bakhita by Cardinal Agostini. A few years later, in 1896, she took her vows as a Canossian Sister.
She was known as the happy nun; she blessed the children who came to her, and her prayers for the protection for her town proved to be effective since no one from that town died during the bombings of WWII.
In the time closer to her death, those who would come and visit her in her room would leave with a beautiful impression of her. Her superior, Mother Martini said, "Once you entered her room, you did not want to leave, so inviting and attractive was Mother Josephine" (3).
One time when Monsignor Carlo Zinato came to visit the Canossian convent, he visited with St. Josephine several times. He was quoted as saying, "That is one holy religious! You are fortunate to have a saint in your midst" (3).
There are countless testimonies by the children on whom she made a huge impact, who testify to her inner-beauty, patience, availability, wit, and wonderful sense of humour.
The beloved nun died on February 8, 1947, surrounded by her Sisters. She is the patron Saint of human trafficking victims and of Sudan.
Understandably, one might think that a person with such history, such trauma, might not have lived a thriving life. You can imagine that their worldview might have been jaded, pessimistic, and full of suspicion.
Surprisingly, this was not the case for St. Josephine. She saw in herself and others, the dignity and worth of the human person. Not in conceit, but because she believed and trusted in God's Word. When the eyes of her mind were open to the value of her soul, she rose to the calling of that truth. She didn't wait for others to validate her worth, despite her background and what others might see as a shameful past, or the fact that she looked different than everyone around her. She only looked to one Person to remind her of who she was, and that person was our loving God.
It is incredible to me that someone who had endured so much can come out of that, joyful and convicted of God's love for her, and continue to be an icon of kindness to others.
This beautiful Saint reminds me of the Israelites coming out of Egypt, coming out of captivity. They had the opportunity to choose to remember life during slavery, or they could choose to see the many ways God had miraculously and triumphantly saved them from bondage, like during the parting of the Red Sea, and when being fed daily despite living in an arid dessert. It was their choice. Both perspectives were true, but one brought death and the other brought life.
I imagine St. Josephine lived the same way. She could have chosen to live her life remembering her trauma, her mistreatment, her abuse, and the injustice of it all. But it seems to me that instead she chose to live a life-giving perspective, a Kingdom perspective. She chose to see the many ways God's providence and protection had been woven in her life. Many of her quotes, reveal this:
"The Lord has always been good to me my whole life"(4).
"The Lord has always watched over me" (4).
"My entire life has been a gift of God"(4).
That is what St. Josephine represents to me. She is a reminder that I have a choice. I have a choice about how I respond to life's circumstances. I don't have to react to life, but instead I can respond with a posture of trust and love even towards struggles, since we know that God is trustworthy. It gives my soul a tremendous sense of hope!
In Bakhita we can see that "hope does not disappoint".
"Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has given to us" (Romans 5:1-5 NAB).
Bakhita is our Universal Sister. She is one who we look to help us see through a Kingdom perspective. When we are tempted to look to our past and just see the hurt, she inspires us to look at the many ways God had blessed us in our journey. When we struggle to forgive, she inspires us to love and bless those who hurt us. When we have forgotten our self-worth, she reminds us to live in the certitude of God's love for us, and to remember that we are the children of the King. As St. Josephine has said, "I am definitely loved and I'm awaited by this love, whatever happens to me. So my life is good".
St. Josephine Bakhita, Pray for Us.
1. Zanini, Roberto I. Bakhita: From Slave to Saint. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013. 35.
2. Zanini. 81.
3. Zanini. 140.
4. Zanini. 30.
Imagery belongs to fineartsamerica by John Alan Warford