Bakhita: From slavery to inner freedom

Slavery: Seeking the master who loves unconditionally

Who is the master of love? How can we meet him? These questions can help us to position ourselves to reflect on how our journey of faith started, bringing to focus on the significant encounters with people, the difficulties faced and the graces received.

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Certain difficulties we face can have a major impact on our life. How we respond can mean either fanning the flame of faith or smothering it. People react to difficulties in various ways. However, an important invitation is to develop the ability to see beyond the difficulties faced and not to lose sight of the positive aspects of our experiences. The difficulties we face can actually lead us to attain a greater degree of inner freedom which widens the scope of faith as we are ushered more intimately into the presence of God whose love is unconditional.

This is what we see as we consider the life of St. Josephine Bakhita. Her childhood experience of slavery led her to finding the Master of unconditional love. Slavery can mean a life of complete dispossession or systematic impoverishment and torture, a life full of trauma. This is the experience that marked the early life of St. Joseph Bakhita, an experience that is apparently bereft of the sense of faith, hope, and love.

In the seven years of being tossed around in the slave markets, the young Bakhita would have encountered different masters. The journey for her started with being kidnapped by the slave traders in 1878, at the tender age of nine. In 1885 she encountered as her master Callisto Legnani who brought her to Khartoum, Sudan. Later, she ended up in Italy, under another master Augusto Michieli. These different masters were for her bridges that led her to encounter the Master of unconditional love.

She eventually learned to see the journey as a slave, which in itself is dehumanizing, as a transformative journey. Her encounter with the Canossian Religious sisters was a significant element in this process. The sisters helped her to discover, in Jesus Christ, a kind, understanding, and truly loving Master. She was particularly moved by Christ’s Passion, finding in the love that led Christ through his Passion the hope, love, and freedom that slavery sought to deprive her of. She realized that she was no longer a slave; rather, she was a free child of God. She said, “I am definitely loved, and, whatever happens to me, I am awaited by this love. And so my life is good. “

The name Bakhita means “the fortunate one”. In the example of St. Bakhita, those who in different ways are still deprived of a good quality of life – including refugees, internally displaced persons, migrants, victims of human traffickers, and other victims of human insensitivity and natural disasters – can find reasons to hope and to begin to realize that in Christ they are also fortunate. She can inspire all of us to see the possibility of transformation even where affliction abounds. We are never alone because there is a Master who embraces all, and who in his great mercy can transform, not only those who are crushed to the ground but also those who are hardened in misusing their powers and privileges. May the prayers and testimony of Bakhita inspire us towards finding greater interior freedom in Christ.

Finding freedom in humble service 

Helplessness can be part of one’s feeling when in a new environment with extremely limited choices. What sense of freedom can one have and what is the meaning of faith for one subjected to the conditions of slavery? What should one do in such a condition where every sign of personal growth is counted either as resources to be fully exploited by the master or threats to be stifled as quickly as they are manifested? The degree of human patience and interior freedom required here can be difficult to imagine. Yet, we find in the example of St. Josephine Bakhita that it is possible to rise above such a degrading condition. 

Today we still have people who, like St. Bakhita, have been forced to either leave their homes as a result of war, persecution, or other threats to their lives and wellbeing. Some of these people have found themselves as refugees, internally displaced persons, migrants, and victims of human trafficking, often getting trapped in abusive and wretched living or working conditions. St. Bakhita worked as a babysitter at some point. Working as a babysitter is actually a very rewarding job in many ways, but babysitting under the precarious and distressing conditions of slavery is a completely different experience. The slave is there to be used; no other choice. However, St. Bakhita would approach her situation with humility, love, and purity of heart. Humility has the power of loosening the bonds of slavery and nudging the heart towards freedom in love and service.

It was in this spirit of humility that Bakhita cared for baby “Mimmina”, and they became friends. Through her genuine smile, keen attention, and dedication, Bakhita won the trust of her masters. Her presence in the family radiated love and peace. This led the parents to entrust their daughter to her care when they returned to Africa. Bakhita once said, “The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone….we must be compassionate.” This is an inspiration drawn from her journey of inner freedom. 

There are stories similar to Bakhita’s among refugees, internally displaced persons, migrants, and victims of human trafficking. Finding ourselves in a totally new environment can make us feel helpless, especially when the move is sudden and undesired. With dreams shattered, many have to face the choice between either accepting very lowly jobs in order to keep the hope of survival or giving up entirely. It is easy in this situation to be caught up in bitterness and resentment. Bakhita’s life speaks to us about the possibility of finding or regaining inner peace and freedom through patience, humility, and love.

Questions for reflection: 

What do I think about my new environment? What challenges am I facing right now? How do I approach these challenges? Is my attitude helping me to grow in freedom, like Bakhita?

Embracing faith that leads to a deeper inner freedom

Each one is invited to embrace faith in God in order to attain inner freedom. It does not matter where we are, what we do, or what status we are in. God embraces us all. For those who seek to deepen their inner freedom, faith plays a key role in that process. 

In the case of St. Josephine Bakhita, she became exposed to the Catholic faith through her work as a babysitter and welcomed it. She accompanied Mimmina Michieli to Venice’s Institute of the Catechumens, run by the Canossian Sisters. While Mimmina was being instructed, Josephine felt drawn to the Catholic Church. “Those holy mothers – she said in 1910 – with heroic patience instructed me and led me to know God whom I had sensed in my heart since as a child without knowing who he was”. Responding to that grace, Bakhita was baptized and confirmed in 1890, taking the name Josephine. Her embrace of faith led her to become a religious with the Canossian Sisters. She expressed her inner freedom in her diary by confessing that, “If I were to meet the slave traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. If what happened to me had never taken place, how would I [have] become a Christian and religious?” She discovered in the difficult journey of her life a purpose. Her whole life was fundamentally a journey of faith leading to the vocation as a religious and the joy of being a follower of Christ.

Bakhita’s story teaches that even in suffering, we can be led to God and we can realize in God the purpose of our life. Through faith, we can attain inner freedom. The invitation is to be open to the conversion of the heart. This sort of openness allowed Bakhita, not only to embrace the Catholic faith but also to continuously deepen her experience of conversion in a way that has drawn many others closer to God.

Josephine Bakhita continued serving God with great humility. As a religious sister, she served as a doorkeeper and a cook in Venice. Her warm and gracious welcome continued to win the hearts of the people of Venice. She was often lovingly referred to as the “black mother” because she never lost her capacity to gently and charismatically care for others. “O Lord,” she once said, “if I could fly to my people and tell them of your goodness at the top of my voice, oh how many souls would be won!” It was said that her mind was always fixed on God, while her heart was still in Africa.

The suffering that many continue to face as refugees, internally displaced persons, migrants, and victims of human trafficking can be difficult even to imagine. Sometimes confidence is shaken. Many of us continue to turn to God to experience the love and freedom that only God gives. Sometimes it is difficult to open up to God and to continue to depend on God’s providence. St. Josephine Bakhita encourages us to hang in there, journeying in faith towards freedom.

Questions for reflections:

Do I encounter God in my experiences, even the difficult ones? Do I still feel drawn to faith in God as a path to freedom? How can I relate my story to that of St. Josephine Bakhita?

Saint Josephine Bakhita:
A saint for the suffering

Who is my patron saint? Whose life do I consider as exemplary and encouraging in my journey as a Christian? The deep faith we have in God leads us to have confidence in God’s providence. Yet, it is very helpful to feel supported by others through their examples and intercession. We know of many who have striven to live faithfully as servants of God before their departure from this world, and we remain connected with them in the Christian hope of being reunited with them to rejoice eternally in the presence of God. We can learn from these faithful servants and we can count on their intercessions.

Bakhita is one of those faithful servants who continue to intercede for us. In her later years, Bakhita suffered physical pain and used a wheelchair. Even in that situation, she continued to be cheerful. When asked how she was feeling she used to say, “As the master desires.” After she died in 1947, before her burial, a miraculous testimony began to be manifested. Her body was warm and soft when the coffin was closed. Right in front of the body, an unemployed man prayed for a job and on the same day found work. Three years later, in 1950, the Canossian bulletin published six pages of names of people who had received graces through the intercession of St. Bakhita. It was Pope John Paul II who signed the decree recognizing the heroic virtues of Josephine Bakhita on the first of December 1978 and the decree of her beatification on the sixth of July 1991. On May 17, 1992, she was proclaimed blessed, and on October 1, 2000, in St Peter’s Square, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II. She is the patron saint of victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. Her feast is celebrated on the 8th of February every year.   

In our time, slavery is seen in the form of human trafficking, where there is the use of violence, threats, or coercion to recruit, harbor, or transport people in order to exploit them for purposes such as prostitution, labor, criminality, marriage, or organ harvesting. These elements of modern slavery touch the core of all those who go through various kinds of serious difficulty, more especially forcibly displaced people: the refugees, IDPs, and migrants. These people have many needs for which they seek assistance from God. They need food, education, good jobs, security, and, most importantly, inner healing – that deep spiritual nourishment that helps them to grow in freedom.  

Let us ask St. Bakhita who, during her lifetime, underwent many difficulties but still was able to attain the inner freedom she needed, a gift from her Master of love. This inner freedom led her to advance in her faith and to pursue her vocation. She held onto her Master’s love and care until she breathed her last. And now, as a saint, her intercessory role for the victims of modern slavery continues to be a sign for us. Let us continue to seek her support in order to advance in hope and in spiritual freedom.   

St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for us!

by Bekele Biru Koraka, Sebastian Alexander Madalai Muthu, Anastasia Evarist Lubangura

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