Forgiving a cruelty, be it large or small, can be a very hard thing for people to do. Sometimes people find it is easier to hold on to an all consuming grudge rather than pardon the inflictor of the hurt. That is what makes Saint Josephine Bakhita of the Sudan such a remarkably unique person in the laundry list of Catholic saints.
While the act of forgiving is a Christian virtue, and there are many saints who have practiced it to a heroic degree, what makes Saint Josephine Bakhita different is that her whole early life was nothing but a timeline of incessant and acute brutality and dehumanization. Born in 1869 in Olgossa in Darfur, Sudan, she was raised in a stable, prosperous and loving household. Her early life was no different from that of any other child of her period and culture. She had chores and responsibilities, but she was also rich in carefree wonder, frolicking and fun. However, in 1874 one cross in a long line of crosses would enter Bakhita’s life, the first one being the abduction of her older sister by slave traders. The close sisters would never see each again. Two years later, Bakhita herself would also be kidnapped and sold, and ultimately, subjected to unspeakable tortures, like cuttings, mutilations, tattooing and beatings. In 1876, she made her first attempt at escape but was subsequently recaptured and sold a second time in El Obeid. As long periods of time elapsed with various owners, for she was sold four times in total and then handed off temporarily a fifth time, she saw the worst of what human nature had to offer. It was only through her submissive obedience to her sundry lot of ‘masters’ that she was able to keep her wits about herself, while internally she cried herself to Heaven.
It was only after her final enslavement to an Italian consul named Calisto Legnani that things slowly started to change for Bakhita. Calisto Legnani took her then to Genoa, Italy where he entrusted her to a married couple named Agusto and Turina Michieli who, from thenceforward, took her to Venice (after other sojourns) alongside their daughter to the Institute of Catechumens run by the Canossian Sisters. It was there that Bakhita got the name and the story of the man and God whom she felt in her life all along but could not adequately express. When she was a child, she was always in awe of the splendid beauty of her homeland, the raw and fiery landscapes that entranced and enveloped her. By her simple awareness of the beauty that beheld her, she knew that there was a higher power or force that was responsible for the mystical feelings that always enraptured her. She knew that He existed, yet, she could not explain who He was nor eloquently explain that presence that she beheld. But it was something that was ever present in the landscape and in herself, and clearly, it was a gift of God to her. Those quiet moments and powerful images helped to sustain Bakhita and reassured her that she was not alone in her suffering and desolation. When she and the Michieli’s young daughter were sent to the Institute of Catechumens for catechetical instruction, it was there that things began to gel for Bakhita. She learned of Jesus Christ suffering on the Cross and of His heroic forgiveness; it was that stark cognizance that cemented her belief in why she never truly felt utterly alone in her enslavement. With that epiphany, she sensed that she was being asked by the Lord to be her master, and when she consented, she would have to do something absolutely unheard of in the annals of slave history. She would have to tell her masters, No. I am not going back with you. It was an incident that certainly did create a brouhaha and stirred people’s passions, but a calling is a calling, and some people will certainly jump through hoops of fire to ensure that that calling is seen through.
Bakhita was ultimately baptized and entered into the Canossian novitiate, where she grew in holiness, a nun sought out by many in the community who attested to the serene holiness that was within her. But even when she was growing in sanctity, she never lost her down-to-earth and sweet temperament. She too was also know for her sharp wise cracks and calling a spade a spade when necessary. She was not a pushover by any stretch of the imagination, despite her constant availability and unceasing praying, for it was all for the glory of God. While she had many mundane responsibilities within the Canossian Order, probably the most difficult thing for her was the constant retelling of her life as a slave. The constant act of remembering brutal horror so that others might be better, was, for me, an ultimate act of charity. Bakhita was embraced, but she was still considered somewhat of an anomaly in her environment, as there were no other African sisters. But her exoticness is what drew people to her, and when she spoke, it was always with words of wisdom, love and forgiveness, truths as conveyed by the Lord. Her life was an example of those words. She was even so humble as to acknowledge her slave traders for bringing her to Jesus Christ.
What is so unique, too, is how Bakhita’s life story spread, thanks in large part to the Catholic prelature Opus Dei and soon-to-be Saint Pope John Paul II, who beatified Josephine Bakhita alongside Opus Dei’s founder Josemaria Escriva. Opus Dei, which means Work of God, is a lay group (in a nutshell) whereby Catholics not called to religious life but who still want to serve the Church, seek holiness in their every day lives by dedicating their family and work-a-day tasks and responsibilities to God. And that in essence, is what Saint Josephine Bakhita did to such a heroic degree; she offered her work, life and uppermost, her forgivness as an example. And it’s really the members of Opus Dei who carried the story of Bakhita throughout the world. Also noted, however, are the numerous and noted miracles attested to her intercession after her death.
This was a really illuminating and interesting read. It is a story that is straightforward yet compelling, as every good human life is. The book conveys the power of faith while not diminishing the hurt and suffering that brought Bakhita to that faith. I personally believe that Saint Josephine Bakhita is one of the Church’s greatest saints. She, in echoing our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross, from the Book of Luke, has a very valuable lesson to teach us: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.”
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