St. Josephine Bakhita.
The First International Day of Prayer on Human Trafficking on February 8th, 2018.
You may or may not be familiar with the story of St. Josephine Bakhita, a modern saint who died in 1947. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000, and her story has become increasingly significant to the contemporary Catholic church, particularly in its efforts against human trafficking. At the request of women religious, the Vatican has declared her feast day, Sunday Feb. 8, 2015, as the first international day for prayer and reflection on human trafficking.
It is fitting that women religious made this request, as St. Josephine Bakhita was herself a vowed member of the Canossian Sisters for 51 years. Sadly, she also spent several years in captivity as a slave-servant to the daughter of a prominent merchant who attended a school run by the Canossian Sisters in Italy.
St. Josephine Bakhita’s story of slavery and resistance illustrates the importance of examining the complex relationships of power that generate conditions for the trafficking in human persons. Reflecting on her story of resistance can help contemporary Christians identify ways to resist human trafficking in today’s context.
The details of her story are known to us today because, in 1910, she was encouraged by her religious superiors to dictate the story of her captivity.
Saint Josephine Bakhita was born in Sudan’s embattled Darfur region in 1869 and died in Schio (Vicenza, Italy) in 1947. This African flower knew the anguish of being kidnapped and slavery. She is the patron saint of Sudan. Saint Bakhita is also often promoted as a patron saint for the victims of slavery and trafficked persons. She was a member of the Daju people and her uncle was a tribal chief. Due to her family lineage, she grew up happy and relatively prosperous, saying that as a child, she did not know suffering.
Bakhita was not the name she received from her parents at birth. The fright and the terrible experiences she went through made her forget the name she was given by her parents. Bakhita, which means “fortunate” was the name given to her by her kidnappers.
Kidnapped at the age of 9, she was sold and re-sold by Arab slave traders in the markets of El Obeid and of Khartoum. She experienced the humiliations and sufferings of slavery, both physical and moral. Although she was just a child, she was forced to walk barefoot over 600 miles to a slave market in El Obeid. She was bought and sold at least twice during the grueling journey. For the next 12 years she would be bought, sold and given away over a dozen times. She spent so much time in captivity that she forgot her original name.
As a slave, her experiences varied from fair treatment to cruel. Her first owner, a wealthy Arab, gave her to his daughters as a maid. The assignment was easy until she offended her owner’s son, possibly for the crime of breaking a vase. As punishment, she was beaten so severely she was incapacitated for a month. After that, she was sold. One of her owners was a Turkish general who gave her to his wife and mother-in-law who both beat her daily. Josephine wrote that as soon as one wound would heal, they would inflict another. She told about how the general’s wife ordered her to be scarred. As her mistress watched, ready with a whip, another woman drew patterns on her skin with flour, then cut into her flesh with a blade. She rubbed the wounds with salt to make the scars permanent. She would suffer a total of 114 scars from this abuse.
In 1883, the Turkish general sold her to the Italian Vice Consul, Callisto Legani. He was a much kinder master and he did not beat her. When it was time for him to return to Italy, she begged to be taken with him, and he agreed. After a long and dangerous journey across Sudan, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean, they arrived in Italy. She was given away to another family as a gift and she served them as a nanny. Her new family also had dealings in Sudan had when her mistress decided to travel to Sudan without Josephine, she placed her in the custody of the Canossian Sisters in Venice.
While she was in the custody of the sisters, she came to learn about God. According to Josephine, she had always known about God, who created all things, but she did not know who He was. The sisters answered her questions. She was deeply moved by her time with the sisters and discerned a call to follow Christ. When her mistress returned from Sudan, Josephine refused to leave. Her mistress spent three days trying to persuade her to leave the sisters, but Josephine remained steadfast. This caused the superior of the institute for baptismal candidates among the sisters to complain to Italian authorities on Josephine’s behalf. The case went to court, and the court found that slavery had been outlawed in Sudan before Josephine was born, so she could not be lawfully made slave. She was declared free.
For the first time in her life, Josephine was free and could choose what to do with her life. She chose to remain with the Canossian Sisters. Josephine became a novice with the Canossian Daughters of Charity religious order on December 7, 1893, and took her final vows on December 8, 1896. She was eventually assigned to a convent in Schio, Vicenza. For the next 42 years of her life, she worked as a cook and a doorkeeper at the convent. She also traveled and visited other convents telling her story to other sisters and preparing them for work in Africa.
She was known for her gentle voice and smile. When speaking of her enslavement, she often professed she would thank her kidnappers. For had she not been kidnapped, she might never have come to know Jesus Christ and entered His Church.
As she grew older Bakhita experienced long, painful years of sickness. During her agony, she re-lived the terrible days of her slavery and more than once she begged the nurse who assisted her: “Please, loosen the chains… they are heavy!”
It was Mary Most Holy who freed her from all pain. Her last words were: “Our Lady! Our Lady!” and her final smile testified to her encounter with the Mother of the Lord.
On the evening of February 8, 1947, Josephine spoke her last words, “Our Lady, Our Lady!” She then died.
The process for the cause of Canonisation began 12 years after her death. In the year 2000 she was declared and canonised a saint by Pope St. John Paul II.
Trafficking in persons — the illegal and highly profitable transport and sale of human beings for the purpose of exploiting their labor — is a slavery-like practice that must be eliminated.
St. Josephine Bakhita, Pray for us and all those being trafficked today.