Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of the Sudan, canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. Hers is a remarkable story – a testament to the human spirit and the transforming love of God.
Although little is known of her early life, it is believed that she was born in 1869 to a family of prominence in Olgossa, a village in the western Darfur region of the Sudan. At about the age of 9, she was abducted and sold into slavery by Arab slave traders. Sold and resold many times, she suffered much at the hands of her masters.
In her own words:
One day I unwittingly made a mistake that incensed the master’s son. He became furious, snatched me violently from my hiding place, and began to strike me ferociously with the lash and his feet. Finally he left me half dead, completely unconscious. Some slaves carried me away and lay me on a straw mat, where I remained for over a month. A woman skilled in this cruel art [tattooing] came to the general’s house…our mistress stood behind us, whip in hand. The woman had a dish of white flour, a dish of salt and a razor. When she had made her patterns; the woman took the razor and made incisions along the lines. Salt was poured into each of the wounds. My face was spared, but six patterns were designed on my breasts, and 60 more on my belly and arms. I thought I would die, especially when salt was poured in the wounds…it was by a miracle of God I didn’t die. He had destined me for better things.
In 1883, she was finally purchased by her fifth owner, the Italian Consul, Callisto Legnani, who intended to free her. When the family was forced out of the country, Bakhita begged to go with them. They agreed and brought her to a small town near Genoa where she became the nanny to the daughter of Legnani’s friend.
It was during this time in her life when she met the Canossian sisters. Eventually, she would join them as a sister and be assigned to a house in Schio, in northern Italy, where she spent the rest of her life. Most often she served as a doorkeeper. As you know, the doorkeeper is the one whom the outside world sees most frequently and the one who welcomes all. Known as Sister Josephine, the local community loved her for her gentleness, her smile, and her holiness. (Reminds me of another humble and much loved doorkeeper, St. André Bessette whose feast day we celebrated on January 6). Instructed by her order to publish her memoirs about her experiences, she grew in fame throughout Italy.
What most strikes me most about this holy woman is her ability to see love and to see God in the midst of a traumatic life. We complain about a host of little things – the weather, a long line at the grocery store, a delayed flight – all which can weigh us down and rob us of our joy, if we allow them to. I’m sure there were moments like that in her life, but heroic virtue overcame them. Heroic virtue grows only by exercising it. Oh, that it were easy! But it is not: it entails dying to ourselves and surrendering our will to the permissive will of God in every moment.
The quotes below from St. Josephine Bakhita demonstrate the immense possibility of the human heart to seek and to know God innately through wonder, observation and experience. This girl, taken from her home, abused, and at one point left for dead, found the Lord of her life, and He rescued her!
Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself, ‘Who could be the Master of these beautiful things?’ I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to pay him homage.
I have given everything to my Master: He will take care of me… The best thing for us is not what we consider best, but what the Lord wants of us!
I received the Sacrament of Baptism with such joy that only angels could describe… –
O Lord, if I could fly to my people and tell them of your Goodness at the top of my voice: oh, how many souls would be won! –
If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today…
The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone… we must be compassionate!
Mary protected me even before I knew her! –
When a person loves another dearly, he desires strongly to be close to the other: therefore, why be afraid to die?
Death brings us to God!
So today, let us pray to grow in heroic virtue and to grow in abandonment to God, entrusting all – our past, present, future, all that we have, all whom we love, and all whom we are – to His Divine Love and Providence. Let us pray, too, for the people of the Sudan who have suffered so much in recent years, and especially for those who are not free to practice their Christian faith.
St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for us! Anne
A couple of quotes from JPII that I thought you might enjoy:
“Rejoice, all of Africa! Bakhita has come back to you: the daughter of the Sudan, sold into slavery as a living piece of merchandise, and yet still free: free with the freedom of the saints.” – Pope John Paul II
“In our time, in which the unbridled race for power, money, and pleasure is the cause of so much distrust, violence, and loneliness, Sister Bakhita has been given to us once more by the Lord as a universal sister, so that she can reveal to us the secret of true happiness: the Beatitudes….Here is a message of heroic goodness modeled on the goodness of the Heavenly Father.” – Pope John Paul II