As human beings, it can be very tempting to look at our lives and our situations and to indulge ourselves in a degree of melancholy and wool-gathering. And we may well have good reason to do so – but that is not to say that it is either healthy or productive, and certainly not if we are unable to move on from it. The trick is to try to see whatever good there is in any situation into which life places us – and there is always good there, somewhere amidst it all. We just need to find it.
The life of Saint Josephine Bakhita is a powerful testimony of trying to see good in all things – and even in the most difficult of circumstances. Her story has come to wider prominence over the last few years but it is worth repeating that story here, in brief form.
Our Saint was born into a reasonably comfortable family in Darfur, Sudan, in 1869. There were six children – three boys and three girls. Already, one of the girls had been kidnapped and sold into slavery – and this was the fate that befell Josephine.
Despite calling her this, Josephine was not the name given to her at birth – she could not recall that name, which was never used after the age of seven and her kidnapping. This took place one day when she was walking in the woods, gathering flowers and herbs. Once captured, she was quickly sold at a slave market. The treatment she received from her ‘owners’ was barbaric, as she recounted much later –
“One day they decided to tattoo us. I was given six cuts on my breast, sixty cuts on my stomach & forty-eight on my right arm. Then the woman spread salt on the wounds & rubbed it in. I lost so much blood & was in great pain. The agony lasted for days. The only reason I didn’t die was that the Lord had better things in store for me.”
Her kidnappers named her ‘Bakhita’ – which means ‘fortunate’.
She was sold several times after this and finally ended up as a slave for the Italian Consul in Khartoum, Sudan – although he treated her well, she was still a slave. The Consul gave her to a friend of his, an Italian merchant called Augusto Micheli; he brought her home to Italy, to be the nanny to his young daughter.
Whilst living with the Micheli family, she was given a Crucifix made of silver – it was the first encounter she had had with anything Christian and the image of the Man on the Cross fascinated her.
As nanny, one of her tasks was to take the Micheli child to school, which was run by nuns called the Canossian Daughters of Charity; as time went on and her contact with the Sisters increased, Josephine gradually learned about the Catholic Faith and began to receive instruction from the Sisters, who eventually arranged her Baptism – and at this point, she was given the name Josephine Margaret.
Augusto Micheli was planning to return to Africa but by that time, slavery was already illegal; aided by the Patriarch of Venice and by the Canossian Sisters, Jospehine took her case to court – she won and was formally declared to be a free woman.
Much later on, Josephine was asked by the Sisters to tell them her story, so that it could be written down and kept. And so Josephine herself takes up the story here –
“I wanted to follow my “Master,” I wanted to live for Him & realized that Jesus was calling me to be a Canossian Sister. I entered the Novitiate when I was 24 years old on 7 December 1893. On 8 December 1896, I took my first Vows as a Canossian Sister in the mother House in Verona. In 1902, I was transferred to the Canossian Convent in Schio & was happy to serve as cook, sacristan, nursing aide & door-keeper. During World War I, our house became a military hospital & I helped to nurse and console the wounded soldiers. I also loved the children who came to our school who used to call me ‘Mother Moretta’, the little ones would even want to lick my hand to see if it was covered with chocolate! My health gradually became worse & after a fall I had to move around on a wheelchair. All I could do was to look at Jesus on the Cross & pray.”
Commenting on the men who had kidnapped her and sold her on, she said –
“If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today.”
Josephine’s later life was marked by suffering as her health failed. But despite this, she always remained cheerfulness and asked about her ill health, she would say simply and with a smile – “as the Master desires”. On her final day on earth, visited by a fellow Sister, who reminded her that it was Saturday, the day dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Josephine responded – “Yes, I am so happy – Our Lady … Our Lady!”. She said nothing else audible after this. Just after 8pm that evening, Josephine died. The date was 8 February 1947. Her remains were venerated by the public for three days, as well as by her own fellos Sisters who, for a long time, had already recognised her sanctity.
Almost immediately, there were calls to commence the process of the examination of her life, with a mind to her eventual canonisation. That process began officially in 1959 under the direction of Pope John XXIII, just twelve years after her death. Ten years later, in 1969, Josephine’s mortal remains were transferred to the Church of the Holy Family within the Canossian School in Schio, northern Italy. Toward the end of 1978, the newly-elected Pope John Paul II decalred her ‘Venerable’. In 1992, Josphine Bakhita was declared ‘Blessed’ by Pope John Paul, and he finally declared her a Saint of the Roman Catholic Church on 1 October 2000, making her one of the first Saints of the Third Millenium.
She is one of two Saints of the Canossian Daughters of Charity – the other being their foundress, St Magdalene of Canossa. The Sisters describe part of their charism in this way – “In the spirit of Christ Crucified and Risen the Canossian strives to make God known and loved”. St Josephine Bakhita, renowned in life for her gentleness and her holiness despite all the enromous trials of her life, certainly achieved this.
St Jospehine Bakhita’s feast day is celebrated on 8 February. In 2015, her feast became the first ‘international day for prayer and reflection on human trafficking’.