Seventy years ago, on February 8, 1947, the world lost a truly amazing and singular person. She quietly passed from this life in the village of Schio, in northern Italy…a village largely unknown to most of humanity. Those who were privileged to know her knew they had lost someone incredibly special…someone precious and irreplaceable. They would never see the like of her again in their lives. Not simply because she was Sudanese and not Italian. They had encountered that rarest of creatures….a human being who would canonized as a saint.
I did not have the privilege to know Mother Bakhita in this life. In fact, I first encountered “Madre Moretta” in May 1992, as a theology student in Rome, preparing for priesthood, in that moment when she was beatified by Pope John Paul II.
How does one describe such an experience of encounter? The best analogy is when someone totally unique and totally special suddenly and unexpectedly enters your life and becomes a part of it.
It is said that the death of an individual is a tragedy while the death of a million is a mere statistic. There is, actually, a truth that this saying expresses because the human mind cannot fathom so great a collective as death on a mass scale.
I wish everyone reading this blog post might therefore have the privilege of meeting Mother Bakhita. I indeed met her in Saint Peter’s Square on a beautiful day in May that I shall remember all my life. I was introduced to her by a Pope who would himself be canonized just over 20 years later. At the time, I was living in Rome, studying in Rome, and working in Rome. I was realizing what was, for me, a lifelong dream…unaware of the encounter awaiting me or how her beaification could shape my future.
Into my life came someone that, all these years later, remains a fixture in my life…a person who made me leave my comfort zone in order to find in those in profoundest need the very person of Christ whom I loved and sought to serve as a priest…people who are, actually, all too easily overlooked precisely because it is easier not to see them. She taught me not to look passed them but to find Christ in them, as He was in her.
In Mother Bakhita, I found a saint who bore the light of Christ….who is a challenge to aim higher, to be better, and to do more for the Lord whom she loved with the totality of her being. What she did and what she accomplished was, assuredly, more by God’s grace than sheer dent of human effort for it required heroicity of virtue.
She is, for all of us, an example of all the virtues — especially those that are the most demanding and that call for the greatest level of heroism — and yet, she is a woman so completely the opposite of celebrity that it would be very easy to have overlooked her exceptional holiness, lived out in an obscure village and in the midst of the most ordinary of lives.
How many times have I looked to her as an example of strength and courage, forgiveness and compassion, love and generosity.
As a child, her life was torn asunder when she was kidnapped from her beloved family and enslaved. Brutalized and traumatized in ways that we can only begin to imagine, in the comforts of our contemporary lives. Once she escaped enslavement…once she was freed of her tormenters and torturers…as a refugee in Venice, she had to fight for that recognition of her basic humanity and right of self determination that everyone reading this post takes for granted. She wanted to be Catholic. She wanted to be a Religious. She wanted to be recognized by the Church and by her adopted country as a free woman.
At her side was another Saint who affirmed each of these requests…Giuseppe Sarto…the Patriarch of Venice…whom we know today as Pope Saint Pius X; a short time after these events, he was elected Pope in the conclave of 1903, after the death of Leo XIII. Thanks in part to Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, Bakhita became Catholic. She became a Religious…Madre Giuseppina Margherita Fortunata, according to the name she received.
Mother Bakhita makes very real, in her own person, the horror of human trafficking for she was a victim of human trafficking. Mother Bakhita, moreover, personifies what it is to be a persecuted Christian. In so many ways, Mother is the human face of Solidarity with the Persecuted Church.
If there was one person that I could introduce you to as the exemplar of what we are trying to do, it would be Josephine Bakhita because in her life and in her story we see the evilness of men overcome by the Providence of God. We see the horror of sin overcome by grace and love and forgiveness. In those who surrounded her as she was enslaved, we see every fault and every failing and everything we could esteem reprehensible in human behavior…but, in Mother, we see this all confronted by the virtues of the greatest of saints and the triumph of the Gospel.
Dear friend of Solidarity with the Persecuted Church: thank you. Thank you for making it possible for us to help the Church where it is persecuted. Thank you for being partners as we seek to help and to comfort the Bakhitas of our own day…the men and women, the boy and girls who are suffering for one reason: because they are Christian. In the person of the Patriarch of Venice and with the Canossian Daughters of Charity, Bakhita found relief. She found supporters. She found solidarity.
Today, Saint Josephine Bakhita is in the eternal presence of God where, as a saint, she intercedes for us even as she inspires us by holy life and encourages by her heroic example. But her story of enslavement and of suffering, of persecution and abject need is lived today by far too many young and not so young people, wherever the Church is persecuted. May I ask you to look into the eyes of these, our suffering brothers and sisters, and see the reflection of a saint? Mother Bakhita would assuredly see in their suffering and passion the reflection of her own trials and ordeals…and I hope you will be able to recognize that reality as well.
“What sacrifice will I make this Lent?” What will I choose “to offer up” to prepare myself for the celebration of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection?
Might I dare to hope…Might I dare to propose partnering, not with the Patriarch of Venice who saved Mother Bakhita from her life of slavery but partnering with the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches as we help them to save their flocks in this time of unprecedented persecution…when even the continued existence of these Christian communities, that go back to the first generation, can no longer be assured without our help.
May God bless you, today and always.