JOSEPHINE BAKHITA (1869 – 1947)
In the dark and dangerous world of slavery and human trafficking, we find the shining light of the slave girl from Sudan, St. Josephine Bakhita. Her life shows that with the help of God’s grace and a supportive community, the human spirit can overcome the effects of the most cruel, appalling and degrading experiences.
Life as a Slave
Josephine was born in the Darfur region of Sudan around 1869. At about the age of nine she was captured and taken away by Arab slave traders. Over the next twelve years she was bought and sold five times and treated in the most cruel and barbaric manner, but fortunately she was never sexually attacked. From innumerable beatings – often on a daily basis and for no wrong-doing – as well as from scarification and tattooing, she bore 144 permanent scar marks on her body. Eventually rescued by the Italian Consul in Sudan, she was brought to Italy.
Conversion and Healing
There she converted to the Catholic faith and later joined the Canossian Sisters. In the convent, she worked at various times as a cook, a seamstress, a portress and a sacristan. She also travelled around Italy promoting the missionary apostolate of her congregation but never again returned to Africa. After all her terrible suffering, she was able to completely forgive her captors and her various masters, and experienced a profound healing in her life. She was able to declare with complete conviction, “If I were to meet these slave traders who kidnapped me and those who tortured me, I would get down on my knees and kiss their hands, because if that had not happened, I would not be a Christian or a religious today”.
The “Little Brown Mother” as she was often affectionately called, reflecting back on her life could see how the Lord was always present, even in her childhood as well as in her darkest days as a slave. She recalled that as a child she had some sense of God’s presence. She declared, “I remembered looking at the stars and the beautiful things in nature and saying to myself, ‘Who is the master of all these beautiful things?’ And I experienced a great desire to see and know him, and now I know and honour him …thank you, thank you, my God”. She loved watching the sun, “In the morning I watched the sun as it was born and in the evening as it set. And I thought if it was so beautiful, how much more beautiful must be the one who made it”. She goes on, “As a slave I never despaired because I felt within me a mysterious power that sustained me”.
She was full of gratitude to God for all his gifts to her. She tells us, “The Lord has always watched over me” and “My entire life has been a gift of God”. She felt privileged as a daughter of Africa to be received into the Catholic Church. Pointing to the baptismal font in the church where she had been baptized, she said “It was right here that I became a child of God – me a poor black girl, a poor black girl”. She was particularly thankful to the Lord that despite all the awful mistreatment she received, He had enabled her to preserve her virginity. She refers in graphic terms to this special grace of God when she says “I have been in the middle of mud and I never got dirty”.
Role Model and Intercessor
During her lifetime Josephine was loved and revered as a very holy person who spent long periods in prayer, and performed all her humble duties with great love. Many people came to her for advice, and had great confidence in her prayers which they eagerly sought. St. Josephine Bakhita is a very good example of how the Lord in his great mercy, can bring forgiveness, reconciliation and healing, as well as peace and joy, into the most hurt and damaged human lives. Her journey from slavery to sainthood will inspire many people around the world and especially in Africa, to deal with the problems and disappointments of daily life, as they struggle to lead good, decent and meaningful lives.
Those whose lives have been shattered by the terrible scourge of human trafficking, will find in her a special friend and a powerful intercessor with the Lord. They will draw hope and courage from her experience of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. She will be a role model for them on the long, painful journey towards the rebuilding of their scarred and shattered lives, hopefully with the love and support of other people.
Above all, she will direct people towards the Lord as the one who truly loves and heals us, and whom all should get to know and love and trust. She tells us that after her conversion, “I am definitely loved and whatever happens to me – I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good” and “If only you knew what a great joy it is to know God!” Turning her thoughts to Africa she used to say, “O Lord I wish I could fly to my people and preach to them in a loud voice about your goodness. May everyone come to know and love you”.
No doubt she is helping them from her heavenly abode. She promised, “If the Lord allows it I will send so many graces from paradise for the salvation of souls”. In her case it seems the Lord is certainly listening to her prayers, because there are very many reports of great favours and graces being received by people around the world through her intercession. She reminds all of us that we are called to follow her example and become saints. She tells us, “Take heart then; let us work, suffer, pray and become saints for this is the one thing necessary”.