Mass on Feast of St Josphine Bakhita with Sudanese Catholic Community

08 Feb 2015

World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against human trafficking
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 8 February 2015


Welcome to today’s Mass here at St Mary’s Cathedral as the Sudanese-Australian Catholic Community celebrates its Patronal Feast Day, that of St Josephine Bakhita. I acknowledge the presence of Very Rev. Dominic Ceresoli CS, Episcopal Vicar for Migration, in this Archdiocese, Fr Christopher Antwi-Boasiako, chaplain of the African Community Chaplaincy in the Diocese of Parramatta, and Fr Mario Debattista OFM who works in Juba, South Sudan, concelebrating with me today. To all members and friends of the Sudanese-Australian Catholic Community, welcome and thank you to the staff of the St Bakhita Centre, Flemington who organised this Mass.

Today, the Holy Father has proposed a World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against Human Trafficking. I invite everyone to offer prayer and penance to God in reparation for sins against human dignity that occur in the context of human trafficking and in intercession for those suffering from this scourge.


Introduction for Mass on Feast of St Josphine Bakhita with Sudanese Catholic Community
World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against human trafficking
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 8 February 2015

Simon Aban Deng grew up a Christian in southern Sudan. One day the Sudanese Army raided his peaceful farming village of Tonga and Deng was forced to take refuge in nearby Malkal. There, Deng came to the aid of a man apparently in need of assistance; for his troubles he was kidnapped, shipped up the Nile and given as a slave to a relative of his assailant in north Sudan. Threatened with having his hands and feet cut off, Deng was forced to engage in agricultural and domestic labour, to sleep in awful conditions and to endure regular beatings. He was also pressed to convert to Islam; he refused, was lucky enough to escape, and now lives in America, working as a lifeguard and speaking out on the injustices suffered by many Sudanese and others. Deng is not alone: it is estimated that in recent years tens of thousands of Sudanese people have been kidnapped, trafficked and sold into slavery as concubines, domestic servants and farm labourers, forced to convert, and treated as mere chattels, with little likelihood of ever regaining their freedom or seeing their families and own country again. And the shocking reality is that this is not some story from the ancient world or mediaeval times: it is the daily reality in 2015.

Nor is this commodifying and trafficking of human beings confined to Sudan. In his New Year’s Day Peace Message this year, Pope Francis spoke on behalf of the millions deprived of freedom around our world today and exploited sexually or for their organs or labour, pressed into service as beggars, drug mules, even combatants.

So the Holy Father has called us today to a World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against Human Trafficking. He is inspired by the story of your beloved saint, Josephine Bakhita. Born in Darfur in the Sudan around 1869 she was kidnapped by slave-traders when only nine years old and sold and resold in the slave-markets. She suffered repeated beatings, forced conversion, humiliations. Eventually an Italian merchant bought her and took her back with him to Italy where she met a “totally different kind of ‘master'”, Jesus Christ, with whom she fell in love. She was baptised, confirmed and communicated and on gaining her freedom, instead of returning home entered the Canossian Sisters in the hope of helping others find the freedom she had found through Jesus Christ. She became that wise maiden in the Gospel with her lamp well-stocked, waiting in faith, hope and love for the coming of her divine lover, Jesus Christ (Mt 25:1-13). All who met her encountered there a gentleness, tranquillity, forgiveness that, after all she had endured, only sanctity could explain.

St Josephine Bakhita’s lesson to us is that every human being is made in the image of God, made for greatness, so that even if they have ‘Made in Australia’ or ‘Made in Sudan’ marked on their bodies, they have ‘Made for Heaven’ inscribed on their souls. Every human being is made to think and feel and choose, for the good, for communion, for God. The enslavement and trafficking of people is against God’s plan for human freedom and against human dignity, indeed a theft of that freedom and defilement of that dignity. Nor is this a problem only found in far-away Africa. Consider the thousands of human embryos manufactured in IVF programmes and treated as commodities, left abandoned in freezers or disposed of; or the slightly older children aborted in their tens of thousands every year in Australia; or the cases exposed only last year of mothers bought and new-born children trafficked in international surrogacy arrangements by Australians; or the periodic reports of migrant workers being exploited, threatened and otherwise abused in our own city and country. As Pope Francis insists in his message, we all face the temptation, at one time or another, to act in a manner unworthy of our own humanity and to treat others in a way unworthy of their dignity.

Bakhita’s story is a similar counter-story to the suffering and abuse that humans too often inflict upon each other: like Christ she was willing to suffer cruelty rather than ever engage in it. So too is St Paul’s story: he recorded that he had been many times imprisoned, whipped, stoned nearly to death; had suffered shipwreck, flood, robbery; had been persecuted by both Jews and Gentiles; had been over-worked, under-slept, starving and homeless.” (2Cor 11:23-29; cf. 4:8-9; 6:3-10). So the author of our epistle today knew similar hardships to Bakhita. Yet his experience was that Christian hope grows not in spite of but somehow because of the sufferings endured (Rom 5:3-11).

Of course, there are less tangible kinds of bondage than the ones that leave scars on our bodies – slavery to vice, addiction, darkness, the devil, from which people must be freed. Job in our first reading complains of pressed service and sighing slavery, but he is even more aware of how trapped some are in delusions, depression, hopelessness and grief (Job 7:1-4, 6-7). Christ came into the world to free it from slavery above all to sin and death, to offer salvation to those who, like St Bakhita, accept this new Master into their lives.

The story of that New Master is the story of a God who loved us so ‘madly’ He was willing to surrender His divine comfort and take on the form of a man, a slave, a victim, even a corpse (Phil 2:6-7). Sometimes we might wonder if it was worth the cost to God. Instead of treasuring and utilizing their freedom well, people so often take it for granted, waste it, live an indolent, sleepy existence like the foolish virgins in our Gospel story. But the wise virgins like Bakhita responded to their freedom by getting their oil and readying their lamps and themselves for Christian service.

The Sudanese-Australian Catholic Community and the St Bakhita Centre are prime examples of the good that people can do as lamps shining in the darkness. You offer Sunday Mass as the source and summit of the Christian life, the re-presentation of God’s reconciling work to the world, God’s act of emancipation. You prepare for that sacred liturgy by fostering lives of prayer through the Legion of Mary groups and enact that sacred liturgy in lives of holy service such as your outreach programmes to men and women and children, to the sick and bereaved. The Sudanese-Australian Catholic Community is a most welcome addition to the richness of the Church’s life in Sydney and beyond. Thank you for your presence and your generosity! Thank you for your faith, hope and love. May God grant you the wisdom to use your freedom well, the determination to extend that freedom to others, and the means to liberate those trapped by any kind of bondage. St Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.