God’s ways are, more often than not, incomprehensible to humans. But He always knows how to guide souls and events to fulfill His plan of love and salvation.
From ancient times, slavery was practiced among the various peoples submerged in paganism and barbarism after the disaster of the Tower of Babel. When one nation triumphed over another in war, the vanquished party was taken captive and subjected to humiliating servitude. Even in the Roman Empire—civilized in so many ways—slaves had the juridical status of “thing” (“res” in Latin), over which their masters had the power of life or death.
The Church unites humanity
It was the Catholic Church, as a good mother, that began softening this hard yoke by teaching Jesus’ new commandment—“Love one another” (Jn 13:34)—far and wide, bringing a Christian balance to human relations. By preaching the existence of a rational and immortal soul, elevated to participation in divine life though Baptism, Catholic doctrine raises all people to their proper dignity.
Far from abolishing the inequalities springing from the mission or gifts conferred to each particular soul by the Creator, the Church invites mankind to a relationship of mutual respect: inferiors happily submitting to superiors, seeing in them a reflection of God Himself, while superiors in turn offer true care and protection to those under them.
In the first century, the great St. Paul summed up this state of spirit in his letter to the Ephesians: “Servants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ […] Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Eph 6:5-9).
Yet, given the pride of the human heart, the admonishments of the Apostle to the Gentiles and of numerous other saints and preachers often went unheeded by both great and small throughout history. From this arose the tyranny of some and the rebellion of others, causing wars and dissentions, the narration of which makes us shudder.
God, however, has raised up countless men and women who have not only heard His Word, but who have sought to put it into practice, creating in this way a court of models to be imitated by others. All of them—each according to his or her specific vocation—deeply understood the law of Love brought to earth by the Divine Master and conformed their lives to it.
Such was the life of Josephine Bakhita, a young Sudanese slave girl, whose docility of soul was so pleasing to the eyes of God that He raised her to the honour of the altar.
The paths of obedience
Gifted with a straightforward, submissive character and with a natural inclination toward helping others, this young descendent of the Dagiu tribe showed early signs of being favoured by God.
While walking with a friend on the outskirts of her town in the Darfur region of western Sudan, Bakhita encountered two men who appeared suddenly from behind a fence. One asked her to fetch a package that he said he had forgotten in the neighbouring woods, telling her companion to run along ahead and that the other would soon catch up. “I didn’t doubt anything, I obeyed immediately, just as I always did with my mother,” 1 she wrote.
Once under cover, far from unwanted witnesses, the two strangers snatched the girl and carried her off at knifepoint. Although understandable, given her eight years of age, her ingenuousness would cost her dearly.
These were, however, the mysterious paths of Providence, through which the plan of God for her would be fulfilled. Had Bakhita been a rebellious and capricious child, she surely would not have set out on a kind-hearted favour for the stranger. She would have quickened her step and headed with her friend back into the town, where she would have been reunited with her parents and siblings before the strangers could have harmed her.
Her life would have unfolded normally within the family circle, in the context of the domestic concerns and animist rituals practiced by her relatives. Submerged in the shadows of paganism, she probably would never have come to know the Catholic Faith.
Spurred on by her captors, she was carried off into cruel and dolorous slavery. Unknown even to herself, she was taking the initial steps—by means of harrowing torment—toward true freedom of spirit and the meeting with the great Lord whom she already loved before even knowing.
Even as a child, Bakhita stood in awe of the beauty of the sun, the moon, the stars and nature. “Who could be the master of these beautiful things?” she asked herself. “I felt a great desire to see him, to know him, and to pay him homage.”
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches: “A man receives the effect of Baptism by the power of the Holy Ghost, not only without Baptism of Water, but also without Baptism of Blood: forasmuch as his heart is moved by the Holy Ghost to believe in and love God and to repent of his sins.” 2 This is what is known as Baptism “of desire,” or “of repentance”. Supported by this doctrine we can deduce that the light of sanctifying grace shone in the admiring soul of this Sudanese slave girl, long before she received sacramental Baptism.
But for Bakhita, this was merely the beginning of a series of hardships that would span the next ten years. Her spirit was so shaken by the violent kidnapping that she forgot her own name. When questioned by her captors, she could not utter a single word. One said sardonically, “Very well then, we’ll call you Bakhita.” The name means “fortunate one” in Arabic.
The sufferings of captivity
When they reached a small village, Bakhita was locked in a cramped and dark room in a poor hut. She was held for a month. “Words cannot express how much I suffered in that place,” she later wrote. Finally, after days in which the door was opened only to pass a meagre meal through, she was brought out, not to be set free, but to be handed over to the slave trader who had just bought her.
Bakhita would be sold five times, to different owners. She would wear heavy chains on her feet, be put on display in market places, and be forced to work without rest to satisfy the whims of her masters. The young slave girl faced the worst years of her existence when she was put in the service of the mother and the wife of a general. “The lash fell upon us relentlessly, in such a way that during the three years I spent with them, I cannot remember passing a single day without wounds, because while those inflicted from the previous flogging were still healing, I would receive more, without ever knowing the cause. […] How much unjust mistreatment slaves receive! […] How many unfortunate companions of mine died from the wounds inflicted on them!”
In addition to other torments, she was subjected to a tattooing which left her bedridden for over a month. She bore 144 scars all over her body, and walked with a slight limp for the rest of her life.
Once, when she was questioned as to the veracity of her story, she admitted to having omitted certain shocking details, seen by God alone and impossible to be spoken of or written. Despite this, the hand of the Lord never once abandoned her. Even in her darkest moments, Bakhita felt a mysterious strength within her, sustaining and impelling her to act with docility and obedience without ever despairing.
God’s loving protection
Looking back on her past years later, she acknowledged divine intervention in the happenings of her life: “I can really say, that I did not die, because of a miracle of the Lord Who had destined better things for me.” And, for this, she was grateful: “If I were to spend my whole life on my knees, I would never be able to express how grateful I am to our good God.”
Proof of this loving protection of God, Who accompanied her from infancy, was the preservation of her body and soul. Even under torture, her chastity was never transgressed. “I was living in the mud, but it never dirtied me. […] Our Lady protected me, even if I did not yet know her. […] Many times I felt protected by a superior being.”
The move to Italy
In 1882, the Turkish general who bought her had to return to his own country, so he put all his slaves up for sale. True to her name, Bakhita caught the eye of Calixto Legnani, the Italian Consul who purchased her. “This time I really was fortunate; my new master was very kind, and started treating me well.”
Although the consul does not appear to have made any effort to introduce the young slave to the truths of the Faith while she lived in his house, those years were the dawn of her encounter with the Church. As a Catholic, Legnani treated Bakhita well. There were no punishments, beatings, nor even reprimands. She was able to enjoy the characteristic sweetness of those who try to live according to the commandments of Christian charity.
With the advance of the Mahdist Revolution in Sudan, Calixto Legnani had to return to Italy. Bakhita asked to accompany him. But upon arrival in Genoa, the Consul ceded her to his friends, a couple by the name of Michieli. She moved into the family residence in the city of Mirano, near Venice, and was given the care of the couple’s little daughter, Mimina.
Encounter with her true Master and Lord
One day, Bakhita received a silver crucifix from a kindly gentleman who had befriended her. “He told me that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had died for us. I didn’t know who He was […]. I remember looking at it when I was alone and feeling something inside me that I couldn’t explain.” Little by little her sensitive soul was opened by grace to supernatural realities previously unknown to her.
Pope Benedict XVI describes the miracle that took place within Bakhita in his Encyclical Spe Salvi: “After the terrifying ‘masters’ who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of ‘master’—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name ‘paron’ for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a ‘paron’ above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme ‘Paron’, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand’”. 3
A brave and unexpected decision
More suffering awaited her, although of a very different kind than the ones she had previously undergone. By an act of spontaneous free will, God would ask her to prove her generosity and denial of all earthly things, for the love of Him.
When Bakhita was preparing for Baptism—having received instruction through the Canossian Sisters of Venice—the Micheile family decided to relocate to Sudan, and her mistress expressed the wish of taking her with them. Bakhita had always been flexible and submissive to her superiors, accustomed to being considered the property of her owners. In light of this she showed a courage unseen until then even by those closest to her, by refusing to follow her mistress. She feared her perseverance would be at stake if she returned to Sudan.
Nothing could alter her decision of giving herself over to Jesus Christ—neither the promise of an easy life, the prospect of returning home, her deep affection for Mimina, nor gratitude to her masters. Bakhita had always shown docility to her superiors. Now she manifested the virtue in another way, by obeying God before men (cf. Acts 4,19). “It was the Lord who filled me with such firmness, because He wanted to make me all His own.”
Commitment to God
Having won this battle, Bakhita was baptized, confirmed, and received her First Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice on January 9, 1890. She received the names Josefina Margarita Afortunada. She would later comment: “I received holy Baptism with a joy that can be described only by angels.”
Not long afterwards, seeking to irrevocably seal her commitment to God, she requested entrance to the Institute of the Daughters of Charity, founded by St. Madalene of Canossa, to whom she owed her entrance to the Church. After completing a feverous novitiate, Josephine made her vows in the Mother House of the institute in Verona, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1896.
From that day onward, her life was an uninterrupted act of love of God, and an unreserved giving of self to others. Whether carrying out humble duties in the kitchen or at the gate, or in being sent on missions across Italy, this holy Sudanese religious joyfully accepted all that was asked of her. She won over her companions while tirelessly repeating “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who don’t know Him.”
Benedict XVI touches on her missionary spirit in his encyclical: “The liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had ‘redeemed’ her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.” 4
Submissive to the end
After fifty years of fruitful religious life—years in which her virtues were refined in the fire of charity, Bakhita felt death approaching. Relapses of bronchitis and pneumonia caused her health to wane. Her last words, spoken shortly before her death, reveal the joy that filled her soul: “When someone loves another so much, they have the most ardent desire to be together: Why, then, is there such fear of death? Death brings us to God.”
On February 8, 1947, Sister Josephine piously and attentively received the last rites. When she was told that it was Saturday, her face lit up, and she joyfully exclaimed: “How happy I am! Our Lady! Our Lady!” With these words she peacefully surrendered her spirit, and met face to face with her Paron, whom she had longed to know since childhood.
Her body was laid out in the church and was venerated for three days by numerous faithful, eager for a last glimpse of their beloved Madre Moretta, as she was lovingly called. She had always treated them so kindly. Miraculously, her limbs remained supple this whole time, allowing her arms to be moved and her hand to be placed on the heads of the children.
In this way, St. Josephine Bakhita reflected the great secret of her holiness in her own body. The path to which God had called her was one of heroic submission to the divine will, and she left posterity a model to be imitated. Humility, meekness and obedience shine through her words, in a truly sublime disposition of soul: “If I could meet the slave traders who kidnapped me, and even the ones who tortured me, I would kneel down before them and kiss their hands, for if none of it had happened, I would be neither a Christian nor a nun today.” ◊
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all citations are taken from DAGNINO, Sr. Maria Luísa, Bakhita racconta la sua storia (Bakhita Tells Her Story) Trad. Cecília Maríngolo, Canossiana. Roma: Città Nuova, 1989. p. 38. (Translation into English, Heralds of the Gospel).
2 Cf. Summa Teológica, III, q. 66, a.11.
3 BENEDICT XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, 30/11/2007, no. 3.
4 BENEDICT XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, 30/11/2007, no. 3.