How much do we know of the story of St Josephine Bakhita?
She was born in Darfur, now western Sudan and was the niece of the village chief. In 1877 when just 7 yrs old, she was seized by Arab slave traders who had abducted her elder 2 sisters earlier. She was forced to walk barefoot 960kms, that’s over 600m and was sold and bought twice en route and subsequently over the next 12 yrs, 3 more times before being given away.
The story is that the trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her birth name and so she took the name given to her by abductors, Bakhita, which is Arabic for lucky or fortunate. She was also forcibly converted to Islam.
During her time as a slave she endured many injuries, the worst of which as for many other slaves, left permanent scarring. Only following the threat of attack from revolutionaries did her captors sell her to the Italian vice consul who when he had to return to Italy, Bakhita begged him to take her there too and she lived in Venice and worked as nanny.
She was inspired by the Canossian Sisters in Venice and 1888 the family with whom she lived wanted to move back to Sudan where they had a hotel. Bakhita refused and finally an Italian court ruled that because Italian law didn’t recognise slavery as legal, she had never legally been so. For the first time in her life she had control of her destiny and chose to remain with the Canossians. In January 1890 she was baptised Josephine Margaret and the same day she was confirmed and received Holy Communion from Arch-bishop Giuseppe Sarto, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice and the future Pius X.
When asked what would she do if she met her captors, replied she would kneel and kiss their hands for if these things hadn’t happened to her she would not be a Christian and religious.
She was in much pain in her last years but alway cheerful. She passed away in 1947 and the petitions for her canonisation began immediately. Canonisation was begun by John XXIII in 1959 and in October 2000 she was made St Josephine Bakhita. Her legacy is that transformation is possible through suffering. Her story of deliverance from physical slavery also symbolises all those who find meaning in delivery from mental slavery which Martin Luther King spoke about.*
John Paul II visited Khartoum in 1992 when only 9 months earlier news of her beatification was banned. He said of her ‘rejoice all of Africa! Bakhita has come back to you. The daughter of Sudan sold into slavery as a living piece of merchandise and yet still free. Free with the freedom of the saints!’ Her feast day is the 8th February.
What does her story speak to you about? What can we do to help stop modern slavery?
Pope Francis encourages us ‘so that in every part of the world, men and women may no longer be used as a means to an end and that their inviolable dignity may always be respected.’
Please do pray her prayer, we’ll feature it next week if you haven’t yet found it. Please also support the Caritas Bakhita event which Bishops Mark O’Toole and Declan are leading on the 8th February at 5 – 6pm for our Diocese and our neighbours in Plymouth Diocese. You can register here. link or emailing email@example.com.