Kissing the Hands of Captors
St. Josephine Bakhita's Lessons in Love and Mercy
By Marian Friedrichs (Feb 14, 2008)
I find it relatively easy to trust in Jesus when things are going well, and I can show mercy to my wrongdoers pretty quickly when the wrong they have done me isn't that bad.
Last week, however, after attending the Archdiocese of New York's Bicentennial Black History Month Mass, I decided I wanted to learn more about African saints, and my research introduced me to a woman who reminded me just how far I have to travel on the road to complete trust and mercy.
Saint Josephine Bakhita of Sudan was canonized by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 1, 2000, just months after he had canonized St. Faustina and officially instituted the Feast of Divine Mercy.
We don't know what name St. Josephine's parents gave her. When she was kidnapped by slave traders at the age of six, her captors gave her the name Bakhita, which means "fortunate." Years later, when she became a Christian in Italy, Bakhita received the name of Josephine at the baptismal font.
When I read a list of quotations from her, I was struck by the perfect contentment and good will in her words. Her childhood and her family had been stolen from her forever; she had suffered horrible abuse at the hands of the slave traders and some of her masters, and yet, when she was finally free and a Canossian sister in Venice, St. Josephine 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."
There have been times in my life when I have felt grateful, in retrospect, to have been disappointed or rejected. My gratitude is born when I finally learn that God had better things in store. Nevertheless, I have still been slow to forgive the people who caused those feelings of disappointment or rejection. And no one has ever hurt me the way St. Josephine was hurt in the days of her enslavement, when she suffered so much mistreatment that, in her words, "I can truly say that it was a miracle I did not die. [T]he Lord ... destined me for greater things."
When I think of a person who has hurt me deeply, I am filled with thankfulness for that experience because my suffering, like St. Josephine's, led me to something far more wonderful than anything I could have imagined. However, I have to confess that I do not feel toward this person the warmth and gratitude that St. Josephine felt toward the slave traders and her masters. Remembering him makes me want to kneel and kiss God's hand because He used my painful ordeal to teach me His beautiful will, but it doesn't make me want to kiss the hand of the person who sinned against me.
Saint Josephine, on the other hand, opened her heart even to her kidnappers and torturers, saying, "The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone, we must be compassionate!" No one, not even the cruelest of sinners, was excluded from that love.
Saint Josephine's example can teach us not only about mercy but about sacrifice.
During this season of Lent, we impose upon ourselves sacrifices and acts of piety. They are usually small, but even the smallest of sacrifices can be painful sometimes. Many of us know the feeling of being at a birthday party during Lent and having to politely decline that scrumptious-looking piece of chocolate cake because chocolate is our Lenten sacrifice. In moments like those, a saint like Josephine can be a big help. Although her suffering was far greater than ours, we can turn to her in great confidence and ask her to pray that we will make our small, voluntary sacrifice of chocolate with as much love as she made her great compelled sacrifices of homeland, family, and for many years, freedom.
Although my research was focused on learning about African saints, the Divine Mercy devotion is never far from my mind, and I thought of St. Faustina many times when I read some of St. Josephine's words. In Faustina's youth, when she tried to resist God's will but eventually found her way to her true calling as a sister of Our Lady of Mercy, she learned St. Josephine's lesson of willing surrender: "I have given everything to my Master: He will take care of me."
The best thing for us is not what we consider best, but what the Lord wants of us! We can easily summarize this truth in the simple statement, Jesus, I trust in You! And like St. Faustina, who prayed so fervently for Poland, St. Josephine longed for her fellow Africans to know God's infinite love and mercy. She said, "O Lord, if I could fly to my people and tell them of your Goodness at the top of my voice: oh, how many souls would be won!"
How many souls we would win if we turned our souls over to the intercession of saints like Josephine and Faustina, praying that we may emulate their virtuous lives, especially their love of God and neighbor, their readiness to sacrifice and forgive, and their perfect confidence in the One who cared for them through every trial.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.