February 8: Saint Josephine Bakhita, Virgin—Optional Memorial
Patron Saint of Sudan and human-trafficking survivors
Canonized October 1, 2000 by Saint Pope John Paul II
Liturgical Color: White (Purple if Lenten Weekday)
If I was to meet those slave-traders that abducted me and those who tortured me, I’d kneel down to them to kiss their hands, because, if it had not have been for them, I would not have become a Christian and religious woman. ~Saint Josephine Bakhita
In 1869, a daughter was born into a loving and well-respected family in western Sudan, in a village of the Daju tribe. Until the age of six, she and her three brothers and three sisters lived a happy and carefree life. That would all change around the year 1875 when one sister was abducted by Arab slave traders. Two years later, she also became their victim. When her captor asked her name, she couldn’t remember so she didn’t respond. She might have forgotten her given name due to the trauma she faced. Her captor sarcastically gave her the name “Bakhita,” which means “fortunate,” claiming that he would bring her good luck.
After her captivity, Bakhita was forced to travel hundreds of miles on foot to the city of El-Obeid. On her journey, she was bought and sold more than once, and over the next several years she was bought and sold several more times.
During Bakhita’s captivity, she was forced to convert to Islam and was continually abused. She was beaten most days, one time so severely that she could barely move for more than a month, and she often was bound firmly with chains to prevent her escape. On her deathbed, she would still have painful memories of those chains. One of the worst tortures she endured was the customary scarring of her breasts, belly, and arm with a sharp razor. Once the wound was inflicted, salt was then ground into it, causing permanent scarring and identifying the person as property.
Around the age of thirteen, the city in which she lived, El-Obeid, was threatened by revolutionaries. Bakhita’s owner, a Turkish general, decided to sell his slaves and return to his homeland. Bakhita was sold to an Italian Vice Consul working in the city of Khartoum, named Callisto Legnani. For the next two years, Callisto treated Bakhita well, despite her being his slave. As a result, when the revolutionaries began to make advancements on the city and Callisto made plans to escape to save his life, Bakhita begged him to take her with him, preferring his kindness over a new owner. He did so and, with the help of a friend named Augusto Michieli, they safely arrived in Italy. Upon their arrival, Callisto gifted Bakhita to Augusto and his wife Maria.
In the Michielis’ home, Bakhita continued to be treated well, working as a nanny for their newborn daughter. Three years later, the Michieli family decided to move back to Sudan for business reasons and sold their property in Italy. During the transition, they entrusted Bakhita and their young daughter to the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. It was with those loving sisters that Bakhita was introduced to Jesus Christ, her true Master, and began her formation in the Catholic faith.
Within the Catholic faith, Bakhita began to discover the God Whom she had sensed in her heart from childhood. Through the sisters’ teaching and virtuous witness, Bakhita began to understand Who this great God is and to love Him all the more. When the Michielis returned to take their daughter and Bakhita to Sudan, Bakhita refused to go with them. After days of trying to convince her, the Canossian Sisters involved the civil authorities, and in 1889, an Italian court ruled in Bakhita’s favor, declaring her free. She stayed with the sisters and on January 9, 1890, she was baptized, confirmed, and given her First Holy Communion by the Archbishop of Venice (later, Pope Pius X). She was given the baptismal name Josephine Margaret Fortunata, “Fortunata” being the Latin translation of the Arabic name “Bakhita.” Thus, at the age of twenty-one, this fortunate young girl was flooded with God’s grace, and her formerly abused body and soul began a transformation. Josephine stayed with the sisters, entered their novitiate in 1893, and made her vows in 1896, becoming Sister Josephine Margaret Fortunata.
In 1902, Sister Josephine was assigned to the convent in Schio in northern Italy where she spent the rest of her life. In that convent, she was given the responsibilities of welcoming guests as the doorkeeper and worked as a cook and sacristan. She became well-known and well-loved by the locals for her beautiful and warm smile, kindness, and calm demeanor. Many of the people affectionately referred to her as the “black mother.” She evangelized through her virtues and evident love of God and did not shy away from sharing her story, including her merciful heart that forgave her abusers. She served the people of God and grew in holiness in that convent for forty-two years.
At the end of her life, Sister Josephine suffered again, this time from illness. On her deathbed, she relived the horrors of her captivity but now confronted those horrors with God’s grace. Her last words were cries of love for our Blessed Mother. After her death, her effect upon the people of God was evident as she lay in state for three days while countless faithful came to express their love for her. Shortly after her death, cries for her canonization stirred among the faithful. Twelve years later, her cause for canonization was opened, and she was canonized by Pope John Paul II during the great jubilee year of 2000 in Saint Peter’s Square. Three years after her canonization, Pope John Paul II made an official visit to Khartoum, Sudan, honoring her on her home soil.
Saint Josephine was more than fortunate; she was greatly blessed by God. Later in life she not only forgave her captors, she also expressed her gratitude to them because God used their cruelty to lead her into the Catholic faith and consecrated life. Her witness reveals that God is all-powerful. He is able to take the worst and bring from it the best. He is able to transform tragedy into grace, abuse into mercy, hatred into love.
Ponder any way that you have been mistreated in life. If you find yourself angry or bitter, turn to this great saint and let her witness inspire you. In the end, she never lost hope. That hope led her from the cruelty of earthly masters to a holy slavery in the service of the divine King. If you find yourself bound by earthly masters, sins, or abuses, turn to the One Who promises complete liberation. Jesus must become our Master, and Saint Josephine shows us the way.
Saint Josephine, you endured unimaginable cruelty from earthly masters. Through it all, you sought out the God Who continuously spoke to you from within. When you met this glorious God within the Catholic faith, you refused to serve anyone other than Him. Please pray for me, that I may allow God to transform every hardship in my life into a source of His grace and transforming mercy. Saint Josephine Margaret Fortunata, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
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 of all 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.
Excerpt from Spes Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI
The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. 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”. On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, 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.