Sara and Justin Kraft
Lessons from St. Josephine Bakhita
St. Josephine Margaret Bakhita was born around 1869 in Sudan. Josephine’s uncle was a tribal chief of the Daju people. At approximately age 8, she was kidnapped by slave traders and had to walk 600 miles to a slave market. Over the next decade Josephine was repeatedly bought, sold, and given away and had at least a dozen masters. She even forgot her birth name because of the time spent in captivity. Her kidnappers gave her the name Bakhita, which means fortunate. Her name Josephine was chosen when she was baptized.
During her captivity, she had some owners that treated her well, and others that were very cruel. One, a Turkish general’s wife, ordered her to be scarred. She watched as another woman drew patterns on her skin with flour and then cut her flesh with a knife. Salt was put on Josephine’s wounds to make her scars permanent. When all was said and done, Josephine had 114 permanent scars from this treatment.
Her next master took her to Italy, and left Josephine and their young daughter in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice while her master traveled internationally. There Josephine learned about God, and discerned a call to follow Christ. Josephine refused to leave the sisters when her mistress came back. One of the sisters appealed to the Italian authorities on Josephine’s behalf. The case went to court, and it was determined that since slavery was outlawed in Sudan before her birth, Josephine could not be made a slave.
Josephine chose to remain with the Canossian Sisters. After taking her final vows, she spent 42 years working as a cook and a doorkeeper at a Canossian convent in Vicenza. When describing her experience of being a slave, Josephine often said she would thank her kidnappers, because without them she might never have known Jesus. As she became older, she experienced many long and painful years of sickness. The more complete description of her life (from which the summary above was drawn) can be found here.
She died on February 8, 1947, and was canonized in October 2000.
Acceptance of God’s Will
St. Josephine can teach us several lessons. First, she teaches us that acceptance of God’s Will is important to being a child of God. When St. Josephine was sick near the end of her life, when visitors would ask how she was, St. Josephine would respond, “As the Master desires.” How often do we wish for a change in circumstances because what is currently happening isn’t what we would desire? Like St. Josephine, how can you be grateful in all circumstances?
Refusal to Accept a Victim Identity
Despite being kidnapped and abused, St. Josephine never adopted the identity of a victim. As Neal Lozano puts it in his book Abba's Heart: Finding Our Way Back to the Father’s Delight, “People with a victim identity have embraced helplessness and powerlessness, believing there is nothing they can do to change because someone else brought this pain on them…When victimized, we must all answer the question, “Am I going to let what someone else has done determine how I live?””
Forgiveness is the antidote to the victim identity. As Neal Lozano explains, “When we take responsibility for forgiving those who have hurt us, we take back our power. Forgiveness is a lifesaver because through it we identify with Jesus, the victor over sin and death. Forgiveness imparts hope, freeing us from the prison of past hurt. It may seem impossible, but with God all things are possible. Forgiveness is not weakness, but rather strength in the Lord.”
Most of us have been victimized at some point in life. The harms whether they be great or small are real. If we are unable to forgive, these harms will begin to form us. Despite horrific treatment, St. Josephine chose to be grateful for her captivity as she realized without becoming a slave, she might never have known Christ. She bore scars, both physical and emotional, from her treatment for the rest of her life. However, she did not let the action of others determine how she would live. How can we forgive those who have wronged us? Do I have someone I personally need to forgive? Do we offer up our sufferings for the love of God and the salvation of souls?
Love of Our Lady
St. Josephine’s last words were “Our Lady! Our Lady!” A relationship with Our Lady is another buttress against the victim identity. I cannot help but think of Our Lady’s famous words to St. Juan Diego, “Am I not here who am your mother?” Our Lady’s maternal nature beckons us to draw near to her whenever we need comfort or strength. How often do we seek Mary and her intercession in our times of fear and trial? How can you develop a closer relationship with Our Holy Mother?
St. Josephine allowed her humility, her simplicity, and her constant smile to speak of God’s love in her life. She inspired the citizens of her village, and at her death a crowd gathered at the convent so they could ask her intercession from heaven. How have you personally allowed the light of God to shine within your demeanor to inspire others?
St. Josephine is an example to all of us. If you would like to learn more about this great saint you can watch the movie “Bakhita: From Slave to Saint” which is available on FORMED. Neal Lozano’s book is also an excellent reflection on how to live in the Father’s love in all circumstances.