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Models of Mercy: Saint Josephine Bakhita

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By Melanie Williams (Feb 8, 2018)
The following is the latest in our series on the lives of the saints. They are models, par excellence, of how we should live our lives following in the footsteps of Christ. This month, we reflect on St. Josephine Bakhita (c. 1869-1947), who was born in Sudan, sold into slavery, and entered a convent after being freed. We celebrate her feast day on Feb. 8.

Saint Josephine Margaret Bakhita, originally from the village of Olgossa in the Darfur region of Sudan, was born around the year 1869 — she herself could not remember the exact date, for by 1877, at the age of 9, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders. They forced her to walk over 600 miles to the slave market, where she was sold to a wealthy Arab who gave her to his daughters as a maid. The assignment was fairly light until she was falsely accused of a crime and beaten so severely that she was incapacitated for a month.

Bakhita was not actually her original name. After years in slavery, she could not even remember her given name. In the course of being sold from master to master, she was given the name "Bakhita," which means "fortunate," in Arabic.

She was once sold to a Turkish general who gave her to his wife and mother-in-law; the two women beat her daily. She was scourged with a whip and cut with a blade. Salt was rubbed into her wounds to make the scars permanent. As soon as one wound would heal, they would inflict another. She received a total of 144 scars throughout her life.

In 1883, the Turkish general sold Bakhita to an Italian consul. He was much kinder and did not beat her. When it came time for him to return to Italy, Bakhita begged that he take her with him.

He brought her along on the journey across Sudan, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean. After arriving in Italy, he gave her as a gift to another family, whom she served as a nanny. When the master of that family went back to Sudan for business dealings, he left Bakhita in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice.

While with the sisters, having survived a series of terrifying "masters," Bakhita came to know a completely different kind of "Master" — Paron, the word for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ, in the Venetian dialect. Up to that time, she had only known cruel masters. Now, however, she came to know the Lord who created her, who saw her as good, and who loved her. She wrote, "Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to know Him and to pay Him homage." Even more, this Paron had Himself accepted being flogged for her sake, and was awaiting her at the Father's right hand.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote of Bakhita in his encyclical on Christian hope entitled Spe Salvi: "Now she had 'hope' — no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope." Bakhita said, "I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me — I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good." Pope Benedict continued, "Through the knowledge of this hope she was 'redeemed', no longer a slave, but a free child of God" (3).

When her owners returned from Sudan, they asked for her back. She refused, and the sisters appealed on her behalf in court. The court found that slavery had been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita was even born, so she could not lawfully be made a slave. She was declared free.

Bakhita, as a free woman, could have done anything with her life. She decided to remain with the Canossian sisters. She was baptized on Jan. 9, 1890, and took the name "Josephine Margaret Fortunata." ("Fortunata" is the Latin translation of "Bakhita.") On the day of her Baptism. she was also able to receive her First Holy Communion and Confirmation. Bakhita became a novice with the Canossian sisters on Dec. 7, 1893, and professed final vows on Dec. 8, 1896, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

For the next 50 years of her life, Bakhita worked as a cook and doorkeeper. She also traveled throughout Italy, giving missions to testify that she was once a slave, but now was a free daughter of God. She had hope that she wanted to share with the world.

As she grew older, Bakhita had long and painful years of sickness. During her last days, she re-lived the pain of her days of slavery. She even is said to have begged the nurse at one point, "Please, loosen the chains ... they are heavy!"

In Bakhita's last moments, Our Lady freed her from pain. Her last words were, "Our Lady! Our Lady!" and she passed into eternal life with a smile.

As a model of mercy, Josephine Bakhita gives us an example of hope amidst suffering. In this time of Lent, let us ask her intercession so that we might have hope in Jesus during our trials, and share that hope with others.

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