St. Josephine Bakhita: Grace Amidst Suffering
Ponder a time in your life when you endured incredible suffering. It could be the loss of a loved one. It could be a moment in which you were mistreated at the hands of another. It could be an illness.
Ask yourself, if you could go back and remove that hardship and suffering from your life, would you?
For me, the answer is no.
Would I wish to endure that suffering again? Absolutely not. By nature, I do what I can to avoid suffering. But I know that it was in those moments of suffering that I grew the most, in faith and in virtue. It was in those moments that I came to know God. It is in suffering that the Lord finds saints.
The lives of the saints were not without suffering. Many of them were brutally tortured by the hands of others in order to grow in virtue and faith. One such saint is St. Josephine Bakhita.
Throughout her life, she endured unspeakable hardship and violence, so much so that she was stripped of her identity and dignity. But in that, she was able to blossom into one of the most beautiful, gentle saints we have the blessing to know.
Her Early Life
"If I was to meet those slave raiders 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." ~ St. Josephine Bakhita
St Josephine Bakhita was born around 1870 in modern day western Sudan. Her younger years were happy. She was surrounded by many siblings and her father was the brother of the village chief. But the village was not without tragedy. Many people were frequently abducted by Arab slave traders, including her older sister. Slavery and the slave trade was illegal in the United States and many other countries in the world, but it was still a common practice at the time.
When Josephine was seven years old, she was kidnapped and sold into slavery. As a slave, she was forced to convert to Islam and was subject to brutal assault; physical, sexual, and mental. The experience was so traumatic that she forgot her given name. She was named “Bakhita” by one of her masters, which means fortunate in Arabic.
She was bought and sold many times to be a house cleaner and nanny to her masters. Some more kind than others. In 1885, her master, an Italian consol, brought her to Italy from Sudan. He gave her to his friend, Augusto Michieli.
Her Conversion and Vocation
"Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself, 'Who could be the Master of these beautiful things?' I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to pay him homage." ~ St. Josephine Bakhita
In 1888, Augusto went away on business and left his family and Bakhita in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. This is when she encountered Catholicism for the first time. She was drawn to the sister’s kindness and mercy. They instructed her in the ways of the faith. She was baptized and confirmed in 1890 and took the name Josephine.
Her master returned, desiring to move his family to Africa. Josephine refused. The Michieli family appealed to the courts to force Josephine to come with them. But the court ruled that Josephine was unjustly abducted and enslaved. The British Empire had outlawed slavery in Sudan before her birth and Italian law had never recognized slavery as legal.
For the first time in her life, she was truly free and in control of her own free will.
In 1893, she entered the novitiate of the Canossian sisters. For the remaining 50 years of her life, she became beloved by the community. She cooked, cleaned, embroidered for the community, and instructed the children of the Canossian school her order ran.
She was beloved for her calming presence and her beautiful smile. She published the story of her life and became well known throughout Italy. She was affectionately called Sor Moretta ("little brown sister") or Madre Moretta ("black mother"). The people sought her wisdom and comfort as their beloved country was decimated during air raids in World War II.
In her final years, she endured constant pain and was forced to remain in a wheelchair. She experienced flashbacks to the horrors of slavery, but offered her suffering to the Lord and our Lady.
She died on February 8, 1947. She was beatified in 1992 and canonized in 2000 by Pope St. John Paul II. She is the patron of Sudan and victims of human trafficking.
"O Lord, if I could fly to my people and tell them of your goodness at the top of my voice, oh how many souls would be won!" ~ St. Josephine Bakhita
The suffering that St. Josephine Bakhita endured in her life was no match for the joy and love that she found in the Lord. Her identity was stolen from her and she lost every ounce of her human dignity. Her body was mutilated, her will to carry on was weak.
But her dignity and her spirit was untouched. In her, we can find hope that our experiences do not dictate our value or ability to love. It’s a story of hope and forgiveness.
Let us ask St. Josephine Bakhita to intercede for us. Ask her to pray for healing in our own hearts and ability to forgive those who inflict pain on us and leave us feeling broken and unlovable.
Let us also pray for all victims of human trafficking, that they may find hope and love in the arms of Jesus, and for an end to the practice itself.