Spirituality Commission Report
Today the Church commemorates St Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of victims of human trafficking. She was the niece of a tribal king in the Darfur region of Sudan and lived a happy life with her parents and six siblings. At the age of about 8 she was abducted and sold as a slave. The trauma was so great that she could not remember her own name or how old she was. She was forced to walk barefoot, in chains over 600 miles by her Arab abductors and was sold twice on her march to the way to the slave market. Her captors gave her the name Bakhita, which in Arabic means lucky or fortunate.
She was bought by a rich Arab and served as a maid for his wife and children. They were not abusive to her until one day the son became angry with her and beat her so badly that she could not leave her bed for over a month. After that incident she was sold.
Bakhita found herself in the very cruel family of a Turkish general, whose wife and mother-in-law used whips to beat her nearly every day. She reported that when a wound from the whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me. They stood by with a whip while she and other slaves were marked by a scarification process: lines were drawn in patterns on her skin with flour, deep cuts were made with a sharp blade and filled with salt to ensure scarring. She described it as the most terrifying memory of her life.
She was about 14 years old when the city where she lived was under attack and the Turkish family sold her to an Italian consul – who did not beat her. When he prepared to return to Italy two years later, Bakhita begged to go with him and he agreed. In Italy he gave her to a family where she served as a nanny. When she and her charge were left in the custody of the Canossian Sisters while the parents worked in Africa, she learned about the God she always knew existed but had never met.
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master” — in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her — that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father's right hand”. Now she had “hope” — no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me — I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world — without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”.
When the family decided to move permanently to Africa, Bakhita refused to go. The Canossian Sisters appealed to the courts and to the Cardinal of Venice. The court ruled that since slavery was outlawed in Sudan (by the British) before Bakhita was born, and had since been outlawed in Italy, she could not be held as a slave. Her first decision as a free person was to live with the Canossian sisters. A few months later she was Baptized Josephine Margaret and Fortunata (Latin for Bakhita) and on the same day was Confirmed and received Holy Communion from the Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto, the Cardinal of Venice who would later become Pope Pius X.
Again from Pope Benedict:
… she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter's lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.
Josephine Bakhita remained in Italy fo the rest of her life as a religious sister. At times she traveled to other convents in Italy to tell her story and prepare women for life in African missions. She expressed only gratitude toward her captors, because it was through them that she advanced on her journey to meet Jesus. Bakhita was always remembered for her gentleness with others and her beautiful smile. Though she suffered with pain and sickness in her later years and was finally confined to a wheelchair, she retained her cheerfulness, and if asked how she was, she would always smile and answer: "As the Master desires."
We can’t imagine what it would be like to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. But it is happening to young girls every day all around the world – even in our own country. The first time it really hit home for me was when a friend reported on her mission trip to Peru and told about the great number of teen-age boys – some as young as 8 or 9 years old – who roamed the streets in packs fending for themselves and of course getting in trouble with the authorities. I asked why the families turned their sons out and not the girls. She looked at me like I was living in another world and explained that they are sold to wealthy families for whatever they want to use them for.
A few years ago I attended a Respect Life Conference and the topic of Human Trafficking was explored in great detail, particularly sex trafficking. I heard horror stories about the abduction of young girls and how they were drugged, tortured, and so mistreated that gave me nightmares for weeks. We can’t imagine the fear, the uncertainty – not knowing what will happen next, how much pain will be inflicted, how much degradation and humiliation – or if human love or dignity will ever be possible again.
Sr Irene visits our parish occasionally, from Mary Queen of Heaven Missionaries in the Philippines. We call them the Pink Sisters because of the joyful color of their habit. She and other sisters go out on the streets and into the bars in the large cities in the Philippines in an attempt to rescue young women who are trapped in prostitution but afraid to try to escape. They offer a safe house, a Home of Love, where residents will receive food, medical attention, education, and especially love – the love of Christ. She describes the terrible conditions, the great poverty in which this Culture of Death thrives and seeks sponsorship for the children and young women who live there.
You all have the Novena to St Josephine Bakhita in front of you. We will begin today on her feast day and I hope you will continue over the next eight days to implore her intercession for an end to human trafficking.
Spirituality Commission Chair
February 8, 2019