Saint Josephine Bakhita, Virgin
February 8—Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: White (Purple if Lenten Weekday)
Patron Saint of Sudan and human-trafficking survivors
Out of Africa comes a slave, to freely serve the Master of all
Black-on-black or Arab-on-black slavery normally preceded and made possible the white-on-black slavery practiced by the colonial powers. These powers—England, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy—were not slave societies, but their colonies were. The complex, pancultural reality of the slave trade and of slavery itself was on full display in the dramatic early life of today’s saint. The future Josephine was born in Western Sudan, centuries after the Church and most Catholic nations had long since outlawed slavery. Enforcing such teachings and laws was infinitely more difficult, however, than issuing them. And so it happened that a little African girl was kidnapped by Arab slave traders, forced to walk six hundred miles barefoot, and sold and resold in local slave markets over a period of twelve years. She was forcibly converted from her native religion to Islam, was cruelly treated by one master after another, was whipped, tattooed, scarred, and beaten. After experiencing all the humiliations inherent to captivity, she was bought by an Italian diplomat. She had been too young, and it had been too long, so she did not know her own name and had unclear recollections of where her family would be. She, essentially, had no people. The slave traders had given her the Arabic name Bakhita, “The Fortunate,” and the name stuck.
Living with limited freedom as a maid with her new family, Bakhita first learned what it meant to be treated like a child of God. No chains, no lashes, no threats, no hunger. She was surrounded by the love and warmth of normal family life. When her new family was returning to Italy, she asked to accompany them, thus beginning the long second half of her life’s story. Bakhita settled with a different family near Venice and and became the nanny for their daughter. When the parents had to tend to overseas business, Bakhita and the daughter were put in the care of the nuns of a local convent. Bakhita was so edified by the sisters’ example of prayer and charity that when her family returned to take her home, she refused to leave the convent, a decision reaffirmed by an Italian court which determined she had never legally been a slave in the first place. Bakhita was now absolutely free. “Freedom from” exists to make “freedom for” possible, and once free from obligations to her family, Bakhita chose to be free for service to God and her religious order. She freely chose poverty, chastity, and obedience. She freely chose not to be free.
Bakhita took the name Josephine and was baptized, confirmed, and received First Holy Communion on the same day from the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, Giuseppe Sarto, the future Pope Saint Pius X. The same future saint received her religious vows a few years later. Saints know saints. The trajectory of Sister Josephine’s life was now settled. She would remain a nun until her death. Throughout her life, Sister Josephine would often kiss the baptismal font, grateful that in its holy water she became a child of God. Her religious duties were humble—cooking, sewing, and greeting visitors. For a few years she travelled to other communities of her order to share her remarkable story and to prepare younger sisters for service in Africa. One nun commented that “her mind was always on God, but her heart in Africa.” Her humility, sweetness, and simple joy were infectious, and she became well known for her closeness to God. After heroically enduring a painful illness, she died with the words “Our Lady, Our Lady” on her lips. Her process began in 1959 and she was canonized by Pope Saint John Paul II in 2000.
Saint Josephine, you lost your freedom when young and gave it away when an adult, showing that freedom is not the goal but the pathway to serving the Master of all. From your place in heaven, give hope to those enduring the indignity of physical slavery and to those bound tightly by other chains.
Mother Josephine Bakhita was born in Sudan in 1869 and died in Schio (Vicenza) in 1947.
This African flower, who knew the anguish of kidnapping and slavery, bloomed marvelously in Italy, in response to God’s grace, with the Daughters of Charity.
In Schio (Vicenza), where she spent many years of her life, everyone still calls her “our Black Mother”. The process for the cause of Canonization began 12 years after her death and on December 1st, 1978 the Church proclaimed the Decree of the heroic practice ofall virtues.
Divine Providence which “cares for the flowers of the fields and the birds of the air”, guided the Sudanese slave through innumerable and unspeakable sufferings to human freedom and to the freedom of faith and finally to the consecration of her whole life to God for the coming of his Kingdom.
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.
Sold and resold in the markets of El Obeid and of Khartoum, she experienced the humiliations and sufferings of slavery, both physical and moral.
In the Capital of Sudan, Bakhita was bought by an Italian Consul, Callisto Legnani . For the first time since the day she was kidnapped, she realized with pleasant surprise, that no one used the lash when giving her orders; instead, she was treated in a loving and cordial way. In the Consul’s residence, Bakhita experienced peace, warmth and moments of joy, even though veiled by nostalgia for her own family, whom, perhaps, she had lost forever.
Political situations forced the Consul to leave for Italy. Bakhita asked and obtained permission to go with him and with a friend of his, a certain Mr. Augusto Michieli.
On arrival in Genoa, Mr. Legnani, pressured by the request of Mr. Michieli’s wife, consented to leave Bakhita with them. She followed the new “family”, which settled in Zianigo (near Mirano Veneto). When their daughter Mimmina was born, Bakhita became her babysitter and friend.
The acquisition and management of a big hotel in Suakin, on the Red Sea, forced Mrs. Michieli to move to Suakin to help her husband. Meanwhile, on the advice of their administrator, Illuminato Checchini, Mimmina and Bakhita were entrusted to the Canossian Sisters of the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice. It was there that Bakhita came to know about God whom “she had experienced in her heart without knowing who He was” ever since she was a child. “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know Him and to pay Him homage…”
Daughter of God
After several months in the catechumenate, Bakhita received the sacraments of Christian initiation and was given the new name, Josephine. It was January 9, 1890. She did not know how to express her joy that day. Her big and expressive eyes sparkled, revealing deep emotions. From then on, she was often seen kissing the baptismal font and saying: “Here, I became a daughter of God!”
With each new day, she became more aware of who this God was, whom she now knew and loved, who had led her to Him through mysterious ways, holding her by the hand.
When Mrs. Michieli returned from Africa to take back her daughter and Bakhita, the latter, with unusual firmness and courage, expressed her desire to remain with the Canossian Sisters and to serve that God who had shown her so many proofs of His love.
The young African, who by then had come of age, enjoyed the freedom of choice which the Italian law ensured.
Daughter of St. Magdalene
Bakhita remained in the catechumenate where she experienced the call to be a religious, and to give herself to the Lord in the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa.
On December 8, 1896 Josephine Bakhita was consecrated forever to God whom she called with the sweet expression “the Master!”
For another 50 years, this humble Daughter of Charity, a true witness of the love of God, lived in the community in Schio, engaged in various services: cooking, sewing, embroidery and attending to the door.
When she was on duty at the door, she would gently lay her hands on the heads of the children who daily attended the Canossian schools and caress them. Her amiable voice, which had the inflection and rhythm of the music of her country, was pleasing to the little ones, comforting to the poor and suffering and encouraging for those who knocked at the door of the Institute.
Witness of love
Her humility, her simplicity and her constant smile won the hearts of all the citizens. Her sisters in the community esteemed her for her inalterable sweet nature, her exquisite goodness and her deep desire to make the Lord known.
“Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who do not know Him. What a great grace it is to know God!”
As she grew older she experienced long, painful years of sickness. Mother Bakhita continued to witness to faith, goodness and Christian hope. To those who visited her and asked how she was, she would respond with a smile: “As the Master desires.”
During her agony, she re-lived the terrible days of her slavery and more then 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 testifiedto her encounter with the Mother of the Lord.
Mother Bakhita breathed her last on February 8, 1947 at the Canossian Convent, Schio, surrounded by the Sisters. A crowd quickly gathered at the Convent to have a last look at their «Mother Moretta» and to ask for her protection from heaven. The fame of her sanctity has spread to all the continents and many are those who receive graces through her intercession.