“Through the intercession of St. Bakhita let us pray that all men and women will come to know the saving presence of the Lord Jesus and thus be freed from slavery to sin and death.”
This was part of St. Pope John Paul II’s prayer during his homily at the canonization Mass for St. Josephine Bakhita of Sudan. At the age of about 9, she was kidnapped near Darfur by slave traders.
It wasn’t until near the end of her days when she finally spoke about the depths of brutal humiliation she suffered during that time. She would later be purchased by an Italian and eventually became a Catholic and a religious sister.
That prayer of John Paul needs to be the prayer of bishops, priests, and every one of us who loves Jesus Christ and his Church and each and every one of God’s created people. Especially now.
Bakhita is a particularly appropriate patron saint, of course, for those who have suffered sexual abuse.
Those who were mistreated by priests — whose pain was only worsened by those in positions to help mishandling the dark realities before them — are martyrs of a sort, enduring such intimate violence in the wake of evil in what should be the holiest of encounters and relationships.
Whether outright evil, the confusion of the sexual revolution, administrative ineptitude, or mental illness were the most potent of the contributing factors that led to the prolonged agony, these vulnerable innocents are casualties of spiritual warfare. And insisting on reform and renewal in the Church, intercessors must be called upon.
There seems something prophetic, looking at it from today, about John Paul II having beatified Bakhita together with Josemaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, at the same Mass in Rome in 1992.
Dan Brown novels aside, Opus Dei and Escrivá are in many ways about the ordinary — about sanctifying everyday work and on-the-surface relatively tiny decisions as normal to so many of us as hitting the snooze button on our alarms in the morning.
Bakhita, meanwhile, suffered some of the most horrific crimes against humanity. And this brought her to Christ. He showed her his Passion in it.
We are pathetic ones, so many of us. (I can’t be alone here.) We can be so stubborn about trusting him. We can be so insistent on not entering into the depths of what he wants to show us, what he wants to redeem — how he will work miracles through even terrible evil.
This time in the Church can be unsettling, maddening, and tempt despair. In his 2007 encyclical “Spes Salvi” (“Saved in Hope”), Pope Benedict XVI quoted from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
“[T]he Ephesians, before their encounter with Christ, were without hope because they were ‘without God in the world.’ To come to know God — the true God — means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.”
The now-pope emeritus went on to present Bakhita as an “example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time.”
He described how she would be beaten until she bled by her kidnappers, sold five times in the slave-markets, flogged daily — which left more than 100 scars on her body throughout her life. When an Italian merchant bought her for an Italian consul:
Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master.”… 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” [“master” in the Venetian dialect] 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.
She discovered hope. “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me — I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” She came to know life as “a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world — without hope because without God.”
She refused to return to Sudan and in 1890 was baptized and received Holy Communion. Six years later, she took vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters. “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.”
As the Church works for justice and truth and transparency in teaching and action, we must ask Bakhita and others to make hope overwhelming to all — especially those men and women who have been hurt by the Church, and especially as children and young, vulnerable seminarians, as well.
At her beatification, John Paul said:
In Blessed Josephine Bakhita we have an eminent witness of God’s fatherly love and a luminous sign of the perennial modernness of the Beatitudes. In our time, in which the unbridled race for power, money, and pleasure is the cause of so mistrust, violence, and loneliness, Sister Bakhita has been given to us once more by the Lord as a universal sister, so that she can reveal to us the secret of true happiness: the Beatitudes. Hers is a message of heroic goodness modeled on the goodness of the heavenly Father. She has left us a witness of evangelical reconciliation and forgiveness.
As I write, it’s unclear what went wrong at all levels involving so many leaders in the Church. John Paul may have been among them in the case of Theodore McCarrick, among others.
I can’t help but think whatever the case is, the legacy of his own heroic virtue on so many fronts may be continuing to bear fruit for us in a rediscovery of this remarkable saint he canonized at this time in Church history.
Pope Francis has emphasized the beatitudes as the “identity card” of the Christian throughout his pontificate. And here is an example in the most arduous of situations.
Father Divo Barsotti, theologian and founder of the Community of the Children of God, observed that [as cited in the Ignatius Press book “Bakhita, From Slave to Saint,” by Roberto Italo Zanini]:
Bakhita is proof that Christianity can transform slaves, that is, people who have lost the sense of their own personhood, into persons capable of unexpected strength. Bakhita is the certainty that through Christ, man can pass from a state of marginalization to one of eternal dignity, greatness, and freedom. And this applies not only to Africa, of course, but to the whole world. Christianity’s powerful promotion of human dignity through figures such as Bakhita is enormous, even though it is often barely reported. A fundamental component of this movement is the promotion of the dignity of women, in opposition to the way in which women are reduced to objects, fashioned into slaves either by consumerism or by cultures that ignore their tremendous human, spiritual, and social gifts. Nobody has done more for women than Christianity, and Bakhita is a witness to this truth.
It was during her beatification process that her late-in-life testimony was released by her biographer, who was given a note about it from her community. As the testimony released at the time put it:
Bakhita came of age and developed harmoniously. The Turkish general was satisfied with her, proud to possess a slave of such racial purity. But one day he said to his wife: “That slave is maturing well, but I don’t like the way she sticks out like that.”
“In the afternoon,” Bakhita recalled, “the master called for me. I ran and knelt down before him, as was the custom. He took the budding part of my chest roughly in his hands and began to twist my breasts as if they were dishrags. I fainted, and for the rest of the day I was left alone. But the next day, and on two other successive days, I underwent the same treatment. The master twisted my already much-tortured flesh, squeezing until every trace of roundness was eliminated. And I had to hold still without complaint, or else I would be whipped. Now I’m like a smooth table.”
Telling her mother superior at the end of her life, she explained, “When I was questioned about my life, I did not mention this part, because I was ashamed.”
That she did not take that to her grave, may be a clear message to us, to embrace the current “bringing all things to light” season. Some dioceses have gone to independent auditors to take a look at their files and investigate and hand over to authorities what might be crimes.
Others have already been approached by law enforcement, as the United States Department of Justice has announced plans to take a look at every diocese in the country.
We have to face what has happened, and do so with the heart of Jesus, through the eyes of the Father, guided by the Holy Spirit. Pray for this for our bishops and priests. Pray for this for us all, for each and every one of us is a leader in the Church by what we do and say and pray and how we spend our time. Live sacramental lives of beatitude. Get to know and call upon Bakhita by name.