03 February 2023

Saint of the Week – St Josephine Bakhita

There is an old, rhyming Latin saying: ‘nomen est omen’ meaning that one’s name is an omen of one’s future. The word Bakhita is Arabic for ‘lucky’ or ‘fortunate.’ Josephine’s adopted surname of Bakhita was in fact the name given to her by her Islamic slave owners; One might wonder how a maltreated slave could be considered ‘fortunate’? Not by earthly standards, but only from the Divine standpoint that we see expressed in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit: theirs is the kingdom of heaven!”

Name: Josephine Margaret Bakhita

Born: AD 1869; Sultanate of Darfur (Sudan)

Died: 8th February AD 1947; Schio, Veneto, Italy

Feast Day: 8th February

Patron Saint of: Human trafficking survivors; Sudan.

Josephine was born into a comfortable and relatively prosperous family, with three brothers and three sisters. She would later fondly recount her early childhood: “I lived a very happy and carefree life, without knowing what suffering was.” Her life took a dramatic turn when in 1877 at the age of seven or eight Josephine was abducted by Arab slave traders and forced to march barefoot the 960 kilometres to the slave markets of El-Obeid. She was sold in succession to a number of slave owners where she worked as a domestic servant. During this time she was forcibly converted to Islam. The life was not always brutal but her owners could be capricious and prone to outbursts of violence. On one occasion Josephine was kicked so severely that she was physically incapacitated for a month.

However, it was in the home of her fourth owner, a Turkish General, where she served his wife and mother-in-law, that Josephine was subjected to the most violent and terrifying experience of slavery. Josephine would later write: “During all the years I stayed in that house, I do not recall a day that passed without some wound or other. When a wound from the whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me.” It was in fact the General’s wife and mother-in-law who seemed to take an especially perverse pleasure in inflicting acts of cruelty upon Josephine. The General’s wife took to performing deep incisions upon Josephine’s back and front that were filled with salt, so at to cause permanent scarring. The pain was understandably excruciating and the wounds slow to heal. Josephine came to bear a total of 114 of these involuntarily inflicted ‘decorative scarrings’ over her torso that she carried for life.

In 1883 Josephine’s fortunes changed for the better, when the general was required to return to Turkey, and sold Josephine to the Italian Vice-Consul, Callisto Legnani, who had a diplomatic posting in Khartoum. To Josephine’s astonishment Legnani and his household never beat or punished her, indeed, they treated her with dignity and kindness. The contrast from the living hell endured under the Turkish general’s home to that of Legnani made a profound impression upon her. When two year later in 1885 Legnani had to return to Italy, Josephine begged him to take her with him. When they arrived in Italy Legnano entrusted Josephine to the Michieli family who lived near Mirano, in the Veneto region. There Josephine became the nanny to their young daughter, Mimmina.

In 1888, a strange set of circumstances concerning the delayed sale of the Michieli’s Veneto property and the family’s plan to move to Sudan, caused Josephine and Mimmina to be temporarily placed into the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. The witness of the nuns, their kindness and the beauty and prayerfulness of their way of life captivated Josephine. She had known the God of Islam (of which her sadistic slave-owners had not been the finest ambassadors) but immediately saw that the God of the Christians was radically different. The God that these kindly nuns worshipped hung from a cross and bore wounds and scars all over His divine Body – scars like her own! She sought instruction from the nuns and as a catechumen devoured the faith with an insatiable appetite. Josephine’s entire life had been marked by suffering, and here was something new: a God who accepted suffering out of love, whose sufferings became redemptive, and who conquered his tormentors through forgiveness and mercy. In the company of these holy nuns she discovered a happiness on earth that she had never thought possible. When the Michieli family returned to collect Josephine and Mimmina, to their astonishment she made it clear that she had no intention of leaving. The good sisters came to Josephine’s defence, and the matter was brought before the civil courts who ruled that because Italy had never recognised the legality of slavery that Josephine had never legally been a slave. Free for the first time in her adult life, able to determine her own future, she chose to remain with the Canossian Sisters. On 9th January 1890 she was baptised with the names ‘Josephine Margaret Fortunata’ (Fortunata being the Latin equivalent of Bakhita), and on the same day she was Confirmed and received Holy Communion, by the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto (who was later Pope Saint Pius X). For that reason alone she earned her name ‘Fortunata’!

In 1893 Josephine entered the novitiate and three years later was professed a Canossian nun. She was transferred to the convent in Schio, in Vicenza. The remainder of her life was lived as a devout religious sister, working as cook, sacristan and doorkeeper, among other duties. Although the only sister of African descent in the convent she was greatly loved by her sisters, and moreover by all the townsfolk of Schio, who recognised the kindness and sanctity of ‘Sor Moretta’ – their ‘Little Brown Sister’. Following her death on 8th February 1947, Josephine Bakhita lay in state for three days as thousands of faithful came to the convent to pay their respects to the saintly nun. Pope St John Paul II canonised St Josephine Bakhita in 2000.

Léon Bloy once wrote, “the only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” Which is another way of saying with St Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 18:8). In a culture like our own, where people (usually the most privileged and entitled) are encouraged to view themselves as ‘victims’ as a matter of social status, St Josephine Bakhita stands as a towering sign of contradiction. For all the trauma, tragedy and suffering she endured, Josephine never viewed herself as a ‘victim’ to be pitied or requiring compensation. Sr Josephine was once asked what she would do if she were to ever meet her captors. She immediately responded, “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious sister today.” For all the horrific misfortune she suffered, Josephine saw the mysterious working of Divine Providence leading her to the loving arms of Christ. Like St Paul, Josephine could count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus (cf. Phil 3:8), and for this reason understood that she was truly Bakhita (Fortunate).

St Josephine Bakhita, pray for us!