Even before I knew the story of St. Josephine, or her importance to the world, she stood out to me in a big way. She was the first African saint I had ever seen in my 38 years of existence. My journey down the Google rabbit hole began as a result of an initiative at my church to show our congregation the diversity in sainthood in order to better reflect the diversity of our congregation. I was grateful for this opportunity to see myself better reflected in our Church and to help expand knowledge for myself and other parishioners. Although I was baptized Catholic and attended Catholic school from eighth grade all through high school, I have no recollection of ever encountering an African saint.And since it is St. Josephine’s feast day today, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore who she was and why she is still relevant today
A brief history
Born in 1869 in Sudan, St. Josephine Bakhita’s journey to canonization began with her abduction and enslavement around the age of nine. Stripped of her original name and branded with Bakhita, which means Fortunate One, she was handed over from one slaver to the next. At times one would act benevolently towards her, while another would beat her without mercy for some minor infraction. The types and levels of abuse peaked when Bakhita reached the age of 13 when she was tattooed. To understand what this meant, we have to purge our minds of the stylish sleeves or cute icons that commonly adorn bodies today. Bakhita’s tattoo was a harsh exertion of power over her. It involved the use of a blade to etch patterns into her body, 114 intricate ones to be precise, that were then doused in salt repeatedly over the course of a month to ensure that she scarred. Her final slaver was an Italian Consul named Clixto Leganini who brought Josephine to his homeland to serve him and his family. After three years the Leganini family left Italy to manage a business in Sudan but left Bakhita behind under the care of the Canossa Sisters of Venice. During her time with the Sisters, her longing for the love of God led her to become baptized, and she chose the name Josephine. When the Leganini family came back to claim her, Josephine refused to leave and had the backing of both the Sisters and the law (which stated that when she was abducted from Sudan, enslavement had already been illegal).This powerful choice set the stage for the remainder of her life. Instead of being enslaved once again, St. Josephine was able to decide the direction of her life, a decision that drew her closer to God enabling her to study at St. Magdalene Canossa and later profess her vows.
Her importance today
Upon her canonization in 2000, St. Josephine Bakhita became the patron saint of Sudan and South Sudan, an homage to her birth region, and the patron saint of human trafficking survivors, which speaks to her lived experience up until she was able to be free of the shackles of enslavement. Sadly, with human trafficking running rampant across the globe, the intercession of St. Josephine is needed more than ever. The International Labour Office estimates that there are 40 million people around the world caught in human trafficking: as sex slaves, as forced labourers, and in forced marriages. For perspective, that’s the equivalent of the ENTIRE nation of Canada plus an additional 3 million to round it out. Imagine - everyone you know, everyone you care about, abused, afraid, and stripped of their humanity. In a word: enslaved. That’s a terrifying prospect, but many people's reality. This statistic is not meant to terrify you, it is meant to impress upon you that enslavement does not solely exist in history books or in cinema: it is here, it is now. In his statement to participants at the international conference on human trafficking Pope Francis states:
“Our times have witnessed a growth of individualism and egocentricity, attitudes that tend to regard others through a lens of cool utility, valuing them according to criteria of convenience and personal benefit”. It is essentially this tendency to commodify the other, which I have repeatedly denounced. Trafficking in persons is one of the most dramatic manifestations of this commodification. In its many forms, it constitutes “an open wound on the body of contemporary society”, a profound injury to the humanity of those who suffer it and to its perpetrators. Trafficking profoundly disfigures the humanity of the victim, offending his or her freedom and dignity. Yet at the same time, it dehumanizes those who carry it out, denying them access to “life in abundance”. Finally, trafficking seriously damages humanity as a whole, tearing apart the human family as well as the Body of Christ.
Near the end of his address Pope Francis offered heartfelt thanks to all those working to end human trafficking. He knows that at times it is risky, but we have to persevere on behalf of those who are caught in the grip of human trafficking.At this point I am sure many readers are wondering, “What can I do? How can I help?” There are opportunities to volunteer or donate to organizations like Talitha Kum or Fight4Freedom that work to end human trafficking. Learn where enslaved labour is used in the supply chain of clothes, technology, and food so you can support businesses that do not participate in human trafficking. You can also read more about human trafficking to learn to read the signs of it.The women, children, and men caught in its snares definitely need God’s grace, but they also need the support of people like you and me. The best way to honour St. Josephine Bakhita’s feast day, her life, and her struggle is to work towards a society that promotes freedom, justice, and equity. Let our prayers, and our actions, work towards these ideals.
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