St. Josephine Bakhita was an attractive African saint whose emergence from the bondage of slavery to the joy of freedom can teach many lessons. While few may not have to endure the extent of her sufferings, all may benefit from her example.
Bakhita’s lifes’s journey began in Darfar, Sudan around 1869. Her family was described as well-to-do. The family members were very close and affectionate with each other. Their “hut” (home) was simple and poor but filled with love and life.
Bakhita’s first sorrow took place when her oldest sister was taken from the village by slave traders. Bakhita herself was kidnapped and taken into slavery when she was 7-8 years of age. Years later when retelling her life experiences, she would say that, “She had not yet been touched by faith but always wondered ‘Who was the Master of all the beautiful things she saw in her village and its surroundings.’” She also said that, “Even at a young age, I felt a deep sense to see Him, to know Him and to pay Him homage.” One of the many sources used to prepare for this talk stated that, “Bakhita did not need to look for God. God was already living in her heart.”
During her 12 years in slavery, she never took advantage of her masters’ property, even when she was subjected to starvation or brutally beaten. She carried out her duties as a slave, trying her best to obey the orders she received. When she was full of discouragement and sadness, she never despaired because she reported, “Within myself, I experienced a mysterious strength that sustained me.” She had an extraordinary sensitivity, very delicate feelings, a charming manner and a great inclination to love and be loved. She appreciated small acts of kindness and needed no special attention from anyone. Some described her as meek, but she also gave ample proof of possessing a clear discernment and uncommon strength of will, fully guided, “by the light reflected by the Word”.
After living in the Canossian House in Verona as a catechumen for several months, Bakhita was asked if she wanted to become a Christian, and she responded “yes”. On January 9, 1890, Bakhita received Holy Baptism and was given the name Josephine Margaret. She also made her first Communion and Confirmation. Those in her presence reported that she was radiant and transformed into joy, unlike her previous feature of sadness. After additional instruction and discernment, Bakhita began her novitiate to become a Daughter of Charity (Canossian Sister) on December 7, 1893 and took her religious vows on December 8, 1896. She was initially assigned several duties including kitchen work, embroidering vestments and handcrafting items made with beads. Others noticed that she carried out each day’s responsibilities with love, joy and attentiveness.
Seven years after her initial vows, she was assigned to a Canossian Sister House/Convent in Schio, in the northern province of Vicenza, Italy. It was a center of educational and apostolic work: a kindergarten, primary and secondary school, classes that taught embroidery and sewing, an orphanage, a boarding house for girls, a Sunday school and Catholic Associations of every type and for all ages. After being transferred to this busy place, Bakhita was given the opportunity “of doing anything that was requested of her” because she knew that availability is an essential element of the Canossian spirituality. She was first assigned to the kitchen. Sensitivity and intelligence alone would not have carried her very far had she not put her whole heart into this heavy and wearying work, such as, warming the plates and cups in the winter to keep the food warm, following the diets prescribed by the doctors for the sick Sisters and boarders and creativity to the daily menus. Everything she did was an attempt to fulfill the desires of the others with total humility. When World War I broke out, several of the occupants from the house were moved elsewhere. Bakhita was given additional duties, which she completed with a will to do her best with God’s help: from the work in the kitchen and becoming the sacristan, where she was happy to spend more time with God. From 1935 to 1939, Bakhita moved away from Schio to stay at a Missionary Novitiate in Milan, where she mostly visited other Canossian communities in Italy talking about her life experiences and helping to prepare young sisters for work in Africa. The Sisters who knew her reported that, “Her mind was always on God, and her heart was in Africa.” Her gentleness,
calming voice, ever-present smile and joy became well known to everyone she encountered. Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were also noticed.
Upon returning to Schio, she was assigned the position of doorkeeper, where she happily greeted all who entered the home. In her later years, it was said that she experienced many illnesses and pain but remained ever cheerful, saying “As the Master desires”. No matter what suffering she experienced, she always responded that she was in God’s hands and would follow His plan for her.
A student once asked Bakhita what she would do if she met her former captors. She responded, “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious Sister today.” This statement shows her forgiveness, her faith and her gratitude. She long ago severed any chains of hatred and bitterness to those who enslaved her; she saw God’s mysterious providence at work even in the worst of sufferings, and she was deeply grateful for finding her way to God and becoming a religious Sister.
Bakhita died on February 8, 1947. She was declared a saint in 2000. Suffering is an experience of all, regardless of social status and comes in many forms. Bakhita is a beautiful model of good triumphing over bad, love conquering hate, and mercy defeating evil.
Respectfully submitted by Barbara Landgraf, Cristo Rey Lay Canossian, Albuquerque, NM on a celebration of St. Bakhita, February 4, 2023.