St. Josephine Bakhita: From Slave of Man to Handmaiden of God
Saint Josephine Bakhita, whose memorial we celebrate on Feb. 8, is one of those saints who provides humanity with hope in the midst of an age repeatedly marked by acrimony, vindictiveness, vengeance and retribution. If you believe that obscene words and actions, mean-spiritedness and the degradation of the soul rule the day in the 21st century, then you must take some time to examine the life of Saint Josephine Bakhita. We can thus consider how her example can only draw us closer to Christ.
Josephine (which was actually not her real first name) was born in Sudan in 1869. She was of the Daju tribe, and her father was the local chief. Josephine’s early life was relatively carefree. However, when she was around only 7 years old, she was kidnapped by slave traders. For over a decade, she was bought and sold numerous times, and endured such a horrendous experience — including beatings (sometimes daily) so severe that she was permanently scarred, periodic deprivations of food, and other abuses — that she even forgot the name that her parents had given her at birth. In 1883, Josephine was eventually taken to Italy, where she served a family as a maid. While in Italy, she came to know the Canossian Sisters of Venice.
It was during Josephine’s time around the Canossian Sisters that she began to learn about God and Catholicism. This was an experience during which she learned about the Gospel and the love of Jesus Christ. When the Italian family who had entrusted Josephine to the Canossian Sisters while they were away returned and attempted to convince Josephine to remain in service to them, she opted to stay with the Canossian Sisters instead. There arose some contention, but the Canossian Sisters advocating on Josephine’s behalf prevailed, and she was able to continue as part of their community.
Josephine was baptized into the Catholic faith on Jan. 9, 1890, at 30 years old, taking the name of “Josephine Margaret,” receiving the other two sacraments of initiation that same day. Josephine formally entered religious life with the Canossian Sisters, and spent over 40 years administering to the needs of her fellow sisters within the convent. Josephine had a legendary kindness and humility that never reflected the harshness that she underwent during the first few decades of her life. Even in her elderly years, Josephine was steadfastly cheerful, despite her increasing ailments and subsequent physical discomfort. Josephine’s warm demeanor persisted up until her death on Feb. 8, 1947. She was canonized by Pope Saint John Paul II on Oct. 1, 2000.
Life is replete with suffering, and Josephine began enduring it at a relatively young age. She went from practical bliss as a young girl to relentless enslavement to comparably willful – although hardly ideal – domestic servitude to entry into the Church and handmaid to the Lord in light of the Gospel, which we are all called to emulate. Josephine was already a grown woman when she came to learn about the Good News, and she received it with zeal and eagerness. Before coming to know truly Christian love via the model of the Canossian Sisters, Josephine had experienced hatred, defilement, indignity and destitution; yet, with a Job-like resoluteness, she allowed the Good News of Jesus Christ to penetrate her heart when she encountered it: “Oh, that today you would hear his voice, ‘harden not your hearts…’” (Hebrews 3:7, cf. Psalms 95:7-8). One can deduce with confidence that Josephine prayed ardently for the conversion of, and God’s mercy upon, her former captors. Would that we do likewise for those who have wronged us in some category.
Life is replete with obstacles and with factors that seek to thrust us into despair. No matter what trials await us, may we look to the saintly example of Josephine Bakhita to know the love of the Lord when we behold it, allowing ourselves to be enthralled by the contentment and joy that stem only from knowing and walking with him, no matter whatever worldly ordeals arise: “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (John 15:8-12).
To learn more about Saint Josephine Bakhita, you can read about her on the Vatican website here: Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947). Italian writer Roberto Italo Zanini also published a book with Ignatius Press titled Bakhita: From Slave to Saint (2013), and Ignatius Press likewise offers a DVD by the same name. Please share the story of this remarkable saint, especially to those for whom suffering, despair, or resentment are currently separating them from the merciful love of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom Josephine readily allowed to enliven her once she received him in her heart.
Saint Josephine Bakhita, model of Christian joy, pray for us!