Editor’s note: This is part of a series for Lent.
Some years ago, an acquaintance told me that the Christian faith does not understand the horror of human trafficking or the enduring struggles of freed slaves.
I pointed out that the Catholic Church is very concerned, and is one of the few voices in the world today that calls attention to the existing slave trade in many parts of the world. This person was not convinced.
Since the church’s teachings are best understood through the lives of the saints, I shared the moving story of Josephine Bakhita.
Josephine was born to an important family in Darfur, Sudan, in 1869. When she was 9 years old, she was kidnapped and sold into slavery. She was abused and mistreated. Josephine was sold five times throughout the slave markets in the Sudan. Her life was marked by severe brutality, and her body bore 144 scars from beatings.
In 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant and brought to Venice. There Josephine came to know the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI is very close spiritually to St. Josephine, and in his letter “Saved by Hope,” the pope writes: “Josephine came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her — and he actually loved her.”
Josephine desired to know more about this good master and loving God. She received her freedom under Italian law, and sought Christian initiation. Josephine is actually the Christian name that she took at baptism. She could not remember her tribal name from her youth since slaves did not have names. The slave traders referred to her as “bakhita,” which means lucky.
Throughout her life, Josephine would kiss the baptismal font, and tell people, “Here, here, is where I became a daughter of God.” She understood the spiritual freedom she received in Jesus Christ, who loved her and gave himself up for her.
In 1896, Josephine became a religious sister, and served the community as a porter. She was known for her bright smile and welcoming spirit.
She shared the painful story of her life to audiences throughout Italy, and helped to prepare sisters for missionary work in Africa.
Towards the end of her life, Sister Josephine frequently said: “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know him. What a great grace it is to know God.”
In 1947, when Sister Josephine was dying, she had flashbacks to her days as a slave. She cried out for the chains to be loosened. The sisters comforted her with the assurances of faith, and Josephine saw the face of her loving Jesus. She died consoled by the grace of God.
The Lord Jesus teaches us: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt 5:5). In the life of St. Josephine Bakhita, we see this promise played out. Josephine overcame her tormentors and the darkness of evil. She inherited the earth. She was free and saw the bright hope given in Jesus Christ.
In addition, after her canonization, St. Josephine was adopted as the patron saint of the Sudan. She is an example of the church’s response to slavery and evil. She stands as a credible witness to the bright hope that is beyond all darkness and suffering.
Father Jeffrey Kirby is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston currently studying moral theology in Rome.