February 7, 2018

St. Josephine Bakhita, Patron Saint of Sudan

Saint Josephine Bakhita,

Optional Memorial - February 8th

There are many types of slavery and also many types of freedom. For some, who appear outwardly free, the slavery is internal and has various guises, such as attitudes that entrap, hurtful emotions that have not healed, or addictions which cripple and bind. Then there are people who seem trapped, but who have actually achieved an inner freedom of spirit that nothing in the world can overcome. Saint Josephine Bakhita, who was born in the Darfur region of southern Sudan around 1868, belonged to the later. Her story began in slavery and ended in sainthood.

No one knows what her parents had called her. The child, who would eventually be known as Josephine, was kidnapped by Arab slave traders when she was barely seven years old. It was they who gave her the name Bakhita which, ironically, means “fortunate” or “lucky.” For several years, her name appeared to be a cruel joke, as she was sold and resold, to an Arab chieftain and then to a Turkish military officer, who mutilated her by slashing her 114 times with a razor.

Finally, in her midteens, she was sold once again, this time to a man named Callisto Legnani, the Italian consul in Khartoum, Sudan. It was the year 1883, and Egypt and Great Britain were in political control of that country, but drastic changes were about to occur. In 1885, Islamic religious reformers rebelled against European rule, capturing Khartoum and killing the English governor there. The Legnani family fled back to Italy, taking Bakhita with them.

There, she was given to a merchant named Augusto Michaeli, where she became a companion to Michaeli’s daughter, Alice. When Alice was subsequently enrolled at Venice’s Institute of the Catechumens, Bakhita accompanied her; it was here that the young slave girl was first introduced to the Catholic faith through the Canossian Sisters, who administered the school.

After taking instruction from them, Bakhita was baptized and confirmed in 1890, when she took the name Josephine. In the meantime, the strife in Sudan had subsided and the Michaelis decided to return to Africa. They insisted that Bakhita, now Josephine, come back with them, but she refused. The case went to court and both the Canossian Sisters and the cardinal patriarch of Venice (the future Saint Pius X) intervened on Josephine’s behalf. The judge sided with Josephine. He ruled that since slavery was illegal in Italy, she had actually been free since she stepped foot on Italian soil in 1885.

In 1893, Josephine Bakhita entered the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa and made her profession in 1896. She remained with the sisters there until she was transferred to the city of Schio, near Verona, in 1902. There she became a favorite, not only of the sisters, but of the children who attended their school as well. Always humble, Sister Josephine served the community as doorkeeper. When asked by her superior to write about her previous life in Sudan, she complied, composing a thirty page memoir, which she wrote in Italian.

In 1935, she was asked to tell her story again, this time in person at the convents run by the Canossian Sisters. Though her natural shyness made this difficult for her, she obeyed nonetheless. Her next assignment delighted her, however; for three years she worked in Milan with young sisters who were preparing for work in the African missions.

Sister Josephine lived into her eighties and, despite all the experiences she had had in life, she never forgot what it was like to be enslaved. While dying of pneumonia, she called out to Our Lady and pleaded, “Please loosen the chains … they are heavy.” St. Josephine Bakhita died in 1947. She was canonized in 2000 by St. Pope John Paul II. O God, who led St. Josephine Bakhita from slavery to the dignity of being a bride of Christ, grant that by her example we may show constant love for the Lord Jesus crucified, remaining ever steadfast in our charity.

No comments :