Every century, the Holy Spirit raises up the saints that our world desperately needs. Though the canonization of St. Josephine Bakhita took place almost 20 years ago, it seems that as of the last few years, this African saint is gaining more and more prominence within the Catholic Church today.
The future saint was born in Dafur, Africa. Her uncle was the tribal chief and her parents were prosperous and well-respected, employing many individuals in the fields they owned. She and her siblings (three brothers and three sisters) were happy and carefree. In fact, in her autobiography, St. Josephine shares that her childhood was free from any type of hardship and she never knew suffering of any kind.
This bliss ended abruptly. When she was six years old, her older sister was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Three years later, while walking on the outskirts of the city, Josephine suffered the same fate. The event caused the nine-year-old so much anguish that when her captors asked her her name, she could not speak. Mocking her (and also hoping the name would entice buyers into thinking of her as a kind of good-luck charm), they called her Bakhita meaning “lucky” or “fortunate.”
Confused and agonized, Bakhita was marched over 600 miles to Sudan and abused repeatedly, both physically and sexually before spending a month in a dark, locked hut.
Then, in order to prevent her from living a free life if she escaped at any point in the future, Bakhita was branded… and not in the fast, hot-iron-to-skin way (although I’m sure that’s incredibly painful too). Instead, the traditional practice of the region was utilized: over 140 shapes and patterns were cut into her breasts, torso and arm with a razor. Then, to ensure that these cuts would indeed scar, salt was massaged into every wound and left there for the skin to grow over.
Sold, Sold, and Sold Again
Bakhita was sold a total of three times. She was abused by all her masters, until finally, a kind, Italian diplomat purchased her for the final time. She was not with his family long before being given as a gift to another Italian family, friends with a little girl in need of a nanny. Bakhita, now a teenager, became the main companion of the child. She was no longer beaten or abused, but she was still viewed as a slave.
The Cross Changed Everything
When her masters needed to leave the country for an extended business venture, they entrusted Bakhita and their daughter to the manager of the hotel which they owned. This man’s name was Checchini; he was to take the girls to Venice to a convent school run by the Canossian Sisters.
During this time of transition, Bakhita encountered a crucifix hanging on the wall of Checchini’s home. Understandably, she empathized with the image of a man who was beaten, bruised and tortured. She said aloud, “Who are you? Why have they put you on a cross?” It was then that Checchini told her about Jesus and kissed a silver crucifix with great devotion before giving it to Bakhita to keep for herself.
This moment of grace changed everything. This was one of the first possession that Bakhita could call her own. When it was handed to her, it was such a profound moment that she felt something beyond her own understanding taking place.
Even without fully comprehending what Checchini had said (he spoke Italian and Bakhita was only still learning the language), Bakhita immediately desired to become a Christian. When she and her little companion arrived at the convent, Bakhita entered the catechumenate.
The Difference Love Makes
For close to nine months, Bakhita studied and lived the faith, finding joy in the love of Jesus — who she lovingly referred to as “The Master.” Then abruptly, Bakhita’s master, the mother of the little girl after whom she looked, returned to collect the pair and bring them back to Sudan.
Bakhita, filled with grace and the knowledge of her own inherent value as a child of God courageously refused to leave.
“I can’t leave this place because I don’t want to lose God” she said.
The Canossian sisters came to her aid, housing her and defending her when the family brought the matter to court. The Venetian judge was quick to rule that Bakhita was actually already a free woman. She had been free since the day she stepped foot on Italian soil since slavery was outlawed in the entire country.
Bakhita was overjoyed, but not as joyful as she was shortly afterwards when she was baptized and received the rest of the Sacraments for the first time, choosing the name Josephine Margaret Mary Bakhita. A few years later, she entered religious life with the very order of sisters who had helped her gain her freedom.
Happy & “Lucky”
Though she suffered with flashbacks and post-traumatic stress for the reminder of her life, Josephine was forgiving of all those who had wronged her in the past.
“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.”
Despite everything, Josephine considered herself fortunate — in the truest and fullest sense.
Josephine spent the rest of her life choosing to serve others in small, loving ways. She was known to give the following advice to children on a regular basis:
“Be good, Love the Lord, pray for those who do not know him. What a great grace it is to know God.”
May we all be as courageous, forgiving, and grateful as this beautiful saint!
St. Josephine Bakhita — pray for us!
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Loving this awesome print from Kcaswell Co. It hit her shop yesterday!