|During my visit to South Sudan last Fall, I frequently heard the name “Bakhita”. I met several people who bore the name of this important Sudanese saint, and many people knew and loved her story.
Saint Josephine Bakhita was born near Darfur in western Sudan in 1869. She belonged to the Daju tribe, was surrounded by a loving family, and had a happy childhood up to the age of 7 or 8. It was at that time that she was captured by Arab slave traders, as her elder sister had been, and her happy and carefree childhood changed radically. She was forced to walk about 600 miles to El-Obeid. She as forcefully converted to Islam and was bought and sold numerous times and abused by her various “owners” over the course of the next twelve years.
Bakhita was eventually “bought” by an Italian diplomat in Sudan who treated her well. When he returned to Italy, she begged to go with him and thus came to live in Italy, where she eventually converted to Catholicism and then encountered a Roman Catholic religious order of women, the Canossian Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor (FDCC), about whom she wrote “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”
While they treated her kindly, Bakhita’s Italian family persisted in believing that she was a slave and that they had “purchased” her and had a right to possess her and benefit from her labor. Her case came before an Italian court in 1889, which ruled that because the the British had outlawed slavery in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth and because Italian law had never recognized slavery as legal, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. For the first time in her life, Bakhita found herself in control of her own destiny, and she chose to remain with the Canossian Sisters.
In 1890, Bakhita was baptized and she was confirmed and received first Holy Communion from Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice who later became Pope Pius X. In 1893, she entered the Canossian Daughters of Charity and spent the rest of her life as a religious. She was known for her gentleness, her ever-present smile, and her calming voice and came to be called by the local people as Sor Moretta (“little brown sister”) or Madre
Moretta (“black mother”). Bakhita died at 8:10 PM on 8 February 1947. For three days, her body lay in repose while thousands of people arrived to pay their respects.
A young student once asked Bakhita: “What would you do, if you were to meet your captors?” Without hesitation, she replied: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today”. So, even though Bakhita suffered great injustice at the hands of people who treated her with cruelty and inhumanity, she recognized one of the great truths of the Jewish and Christian tradition: We believe in a God who can draw good out of evil.
Today, Saint Josephine Bakhita is the patroness of people who are being victimized by slavery and human trafficking, as well as a patronness for the suffering people of Sudan and South Sudan. Even though she left Africa and lived out her life in Italy, she never lost her love and concern for the people of her native land. Let us take this opportunity, then, to invoke Saint Josephine Bakhita for the people of Sudan and South Sudan and for deliverance from the evils of slavery and human trafficking.
(The author is indebted to material found in Bakhita Tells Her Story by Sister Maria Luisa Dagnino, FDCC, and to other information found in Wikipedia online.)
8 Feb 2022
Fr. David, Mission promoter
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