On this day in 1947, February 8th, Sister Josephine Bakhita completed the long and eventful journey of her life. Born around 1869 – she was never quite sure – her childhood was spent happy and fulfilled growing up in the region of Darfur, Sudan – which was not then the dystopic and dysfunctional warzone it is today. But profound evil still lurked around the corner, as Bakhita (a name given to her by her Islamic captors, meaning, ironically, ‘fortunate’, she having lost the memory of her original name) was kidnapped (two years after her elder sister) by Arab human traffickers, and sold into slavery. (Keeping in mind that Islam is, and continues to be, the largest institution for slavery in the modern world, if one discounts Chinese factory workers).
Thus began a life of almost indescribable suffering, torture, physical and psychological abuse, whipping, scarring, mutilation, all at the hands of her various ‘owners’. The son of one of them beat her so severely, after she inadvertently broke a vase, that she spent a month not able to move. And here is a description of one of Josephine’s trials:
As her mistress was watching her with a whip in her hand, a dish of white flour, a dish of salt and a razor were brought by a woman. She used the flour to draw patterns on her skin and then she cut deeply along the lines before filling the wounds with salt to ensure permanent scarring. A total of 114 intricate patterns were cut into her breasts, belly and into her right arm.
The suffering of the innocent is perhaps the thorniest question in theodicy: Why does God allow such was a question that likely went through the yet-unformed mind and soul of Josephine. Why her?
The travails only ended when a kindly soul, who had ‘bought’ her, brought her to Italy; Bakhita was placed with the Cannosian Sisters; it was the first time she had been treated with kindness and love, and she refused to leave, a decision backed up by the Italian authorities, declaring her ‘slavery’ null and void. By the grace of God, she responded to the fullness of truth, and the response to evil, that the Faith offered, and converted to Catholicism, being baptized on January 9th, 1890 – taking the full name of Josephine Margaret Fortunata (the Latin translation of her Arabic patronymic Bakhita). We might smile at the irony, but Josephine knew that this was the path God had traced our for her, and it must have been with great joy and peace that she received her first Holy Communion and, a few years later, her final profession of vows in religious life, fittingly enough, in the presence of none other than Archbishop Guiseppe Sarto, the future Pope Saint Pius the Tenth.
Sister Josephine spent the rest of her life as a religious sister in the convent, praying, working, occasionally giving talks and training to Sisters and others who were embarking on missionary journeys to Muslim territories. She was known for her joy and her kindly demeanour, and, though living a rather hidden existence, was soon renowned throughout Italy as a saint. In her final years, the suffering increased, and she was confined to a wheelchair; when asked how she was, the Sister would reply with a smile, “As the Master desires”. Towards the end, she had flashbacks to the buried horrors of her days in slavery, offering up the trauma in vicarious reparation for the persistence of this nigh-ineradicable evil of man against man: Homo lupus hominis. Man is all too often a wolf to his fellow man.
Her sanctity and personality are encapsulated in an anecdote recounted of her: A young student once asked Bakhita: “What would you do, if you were to meet your captors?” Without hesitation she responded: 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.
How could these words not leave one speechless?
Her last words, as she lay dying on a Saturday, were, Yes, I am so happy: Our Lady… Our Lady. Would we might say the same on our own deathbeds…Josephine Bakhita was canonized by a fellow saint, John Paul II, on the memorial of Saint Therese of Lisieux, October 1st, in the great Jubilee year 2000. The great Pope chose his saints wisely, leading us into the third millennium.
We must live in hope, and Pope Benedict has a discourse of Sister Bakhita in his encyclical, on that theme, Spe Salvi, wherein he writes of her, after she had found a refuge at the convent in Italy:
“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.”
God can indeed bring the greatest good out of the greatest evil, and Saint Josephine is an invaluable patron in our current battle against all the atrocities done in the name of God.
Ora pro nobis, Sister Bakhita!