The Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

08 Feb 2018
The Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

When most people in a country like Australia hear the word ‘slavery’ they think of Africans brought across the sea to work the cotton plantations of America. But since the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833, in the French colonies in 1848, and in the United States with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, most people would think slavery a thing of the distant past. Yet fifty years ago the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church recognised that it was not yet time for the anti-slavery movement to pack its bags. It declared certain sins especially “infamous” on three counts: “They poison human society, damage the perpetrators even more than the victims, and supremely dishonour the Creator”.1 Amongst these infamies the Council included direct attacks on human life (such as genocide, murder, abortion and euthanasia); direct attacks upon human integrity (such as mutilation, torture and coercion); and direct attacks upon human dignity (such as arbitrary imprisonment or deportation, slavery and prostitution, and trafficking in women and children). The Council rather presciently listed slavery amongst the worst evils yet to be effectively abolished from human society and the willingness to enslave others amongst the worst evils yet to be eradicated from the human heart. Half a century later, Pope Francis has been a tireless champion of this cause, calling it an ‘open wound on modern society’ and a ‘crime against humanity’.2 In December 2014 leaders of many of the world’s faith communities called upon their members to work together to eradicate the vile scourge of slavery for all time.3 Meanwhile, the United Nations has recognised that this repugnant activity continues in our world, and has set as one of its Sustainable Development Goals the eradication of the practice, immediately if possible, and certainly by no later than 2030.4 And yet the fact remains that most people think human trafficking and slavery a thing of the past that need not concern them – or, if its still happens anywhere, as something that only occurs in faraway lands over which we have little influence.

So let me tell you a story. Around ten years ago, when I was Parish Priest of Watson Bay here in Sydney a South American woman approached me. She had been brought to Australia as a Nanny with a family and thought she was going to make a new life for herself here in Sydney. When she got here, however, her passport was taken away by her ’employers’. She was required to work long hours, allowed no recreational activity outside the house, and paid no wages at all. But they finally allowed her to go to church because she was ‘religious’, and that gave her a chance to come and speak to me.

She told me how she had at one stage tried to escape to a neighbour and told them what was happening. Instead of helping her, the neighbour effectively manhandled her back to the house of her ’employers’, as if she were an escapee. I did my best to intervene, to get her out of that situation with help from the law and CatholicCare. But this story brings home the reality of slavery and human trafficking not just in Australia, but in our own city. And while this story had a happy ending, there is no such happy ending yet for the estimated 4,300 slaves in Australia at this very moment,5 or the 40.3 million slaves worldwide. Yet this is an issue which the experts agree is one on which, were there the will, our world could make real progress, and quickly. If we dedicate ourselves to the task, we could indeed see slavery effectively abolished in our own lifetime.

In our first reading this evening, Moses reminds his people of their obligation to care for ‘the stranger, the orphan, and the widow’ (Dt 24:17-22). These unseen and unheard people were God’s little ones, His favourites, and on how well they were respected the whole people would be judged. These were the stranger beaten and left for dead on the Jericho road of Jesus’ story (Lk 10:25-37). But why should they care? ‘Because you were slaves in Egypt yourselves,’ Moses reminds them. You were once treated that way yourselves, or at least your ancestors were. So how can you turn a blind eye or a stone heart towards the unseen and unheard people today? Jesus takes this further. These little ones, their voiceless people, are your neighbours, your friends, your family. To fail to notice them is to fail to notice your own brethren in need. And that can only be deliberate blindness, selective deafness. As the prophets of old had noticed, there’s none so blind as those who will not see (cf. Jer 5:21; Isa 6:9-10). And this complaint – that some people just will not see, will not hear, the cries of the poor or the demands of righteousness – is repeated at several places in the New Testament (Mt 13:13-14; Jn 12:40; Acts 28:26; Rom 11:8). Whether silencing and disappearing people is deliberate or not, the effect is to reduce their freedom and opportunities, their impact and redress – in a word, to deny their human dignity.

At its heart the call to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking is a call to make a choice for respecting the intrinsic and inalienable dignity of every human person. Indeed the age-old tension between those who will see and hear, understand and act, and those who will not, can be characterised as the battle between dignity and humiliation. Jesus reminds us in our Gospel tonight that our neighbour includes everyone, not just those whom it’s convenient or attractive to help, and so our choice for dignity or humiliation is an individual choice, one each of us must make in our own lives again and again. As soon as the Samaritan sees the man beaten and lying by the roadside ‘his heart was moved with compassion’, and he did all he could to help. So, too, does the curse of modern slavery cry out to us, and each of us must choose whether we will pass by on the other side, or stop and help.

But what, we might ask, might any of us do today? Well, as with so many issues, we must first search our own hearts to see if there is violence, lust for control over others, disrespect for human life or dignity or freedom, to be found deep within: if so, we must with God’s help root it out. Next, we should seek to learn more about the issue and reflect upon what faith and reason have to say about it, so that our passion is not just for a fashionable cause or hobby ideology. We might talk with our friends and family and work colleagues about the issue, not obsessively like a fanatic, but with facts and charm and persuasion. We might let our political leaders know we care about this issue and ensure that our newfound sensitivity influences our own purchasing and other decisions. We will keep our eyes open for examples of forced marriage or forced labour in our own neighbourhood. I’ve discovered many ideas at the Australian Catholic Religious Against Human Trafficking website (acrath.org.au). And for those slaves outside Australia, we can acknowledge the effect our choices make, especially our purchases, whether of food, clothing and gadgets, come from sources of which we could be proud.

But of course, the greatest responsibility lies with organisations such as businesses, governments, and churches, because they have such great purchasing power. If we must show compassion as individuals, we must also do so in and through our organisations. It is not enough for groups such as churches to lecture or exhort the rest of the community in such matters: we must demonstrate our own willingness to act where we can.

The Vatican has already committed itself to slavery-proofing all its procurement practices and supply lines.6 It is no small task to ensure that everything we use has been obtained ethically; that everything we obtain has itself been produced and supplied ethically and sustainably; and that those upon whom we rely or with whom we are affiliated are like-minded. It is no small task, but we must try: as Pope Francis has pointed out, buying goods is not just a commercial matter, it has ethical and moral dimensions.7 This is why I have committed the Archdiocese to a similar ‘slavery-proofing’ here in Sydney and after Mass will be making further announcements about our approach going forward. And then there is the risk of other kinds of contemporary slavery which rather than involving procurement from overseas operations premised on slavery, are present on our own doorstep involving trafficked women, children, even men, in the sex industry, domestic service, as agricultural or factory workers etc. and we must be vigilant in preventing this too.

Regarding contemporary slavery, Pope Francis has asked if our generation is simply going to look away?8 There he echoed William Wilberforce who said to civic and church leaders: “You may do nothing about it, but at least now you can’t say you didn’t know”. I have great confidence we will do far more than nothing about this great evil, and I look forward to a day when we speak of slavery in the past tense.

Read Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP’s Statement on the Response of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney to Modern Slavery



St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 8 February 2018

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for this Mass at which we celebrate St Josephine Bakhita. I would like to welcome Members of Parliament, Business, Community and Union leaders; those who work tirelessly in the health and welfare sectors and in the field of ethical trading and anti-slavery and human trafficking – particularly Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans.

I also welcome our Director of Sydney Catholic Schools, Dr Dan White and his staff; principals from congregational and independent schools and all the students here; the leadership teams from Australian Catholic University and the University of Notre Dame Australia; our friends at Caritas; my Archdiocesan agency heads, Chancery staff and the Anti-Slavery Taskforce.

And most importantly welcome to the many from the Sudanese Australian Catholic Community and the St Bakhita Centre here in Sydney. It is wonderful to have you with us on your Saint’s Day.

To all members and friends of the Sudanese-Australian Catholic Community, welcome.

Josephine Bakhita was 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 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. All who met her encountered there a gentleness, tranquillity and forgiveness that, after all she had endured, only sanctity could explain.

Of course, St. Bakhita is not the only saint to come from Africa; rather, Africa has given the Church very many saints from its earliest days, including pope-saint such as Sts Victor and Gelasius, scholar-saints such as Sts Augustine, Athanasius and Clement, eremitic saints such as Sts Anthony and Paul of Egypt, early martyrs such Sts Felicity and Perpetua, or more recent ones such as Sts Charles Lwanga and companions. So a very special welcome to all those present tonight from that continent of saints.

The Holy Father has appointed St Josephine Bakhita’s feast day as a World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. And so today I call the Archdiocese to penance in reparation for sins against human dignity that occur in the context of human trafficking, to prayer of intercession for those suffering from this scourge, and to action to stamp out modern slavery. To that end I acknowledge the presence of Mr John McCarthy QC, former Australian Ambassador to the Holy See and Chair of the Archdiocesan Anti-Slavery Taskforce, with Katherine Moloney, Director of Research and Executive Officer, and the members of that taskforce.



1 Vatican Council II, Gaudium et spes: Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 27

2 Pope Francis, Evangelium Gaudium: On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World (2013), 211; Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home (2015),123; Addresses to International Conferences on Combat Human Trafficking, 10 April 2014 and 3 April 2017; Messages for the International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking, 8 February 2015, 8 February 2016, 8 February 2017, 8 February 2018; Urbi et Orbi Message, 25 December 2013; Message for 2014 World Day of Migrants and Refugees; Address to New Ambassadors to the Holy See 12 December 2013; Address to the Delegates of the International Association of Penal Law, 23 October 2014; Message for World Day of Peace 2015 (No Longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters), 1 January 2015; Message for the Lenten Brotherhood Campaign in Brazil, 25 February 2015; Message for the Month of Ramadan, June 2016; Audience address, 23 January 2017; Angelus addresses, Rome, 30 July 2017 and Cartagena, Columbia, 10 September 2017. Likewise: Office of the Synod of Bishops, Final Report of the XIV Ordinary General Assembly: The Vocation and Mission of the Family Today (2015); Preparatory Document for the Synod of Bishops on Young People, The Faith and Vocation Discernment (2017).

3 Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery, 2 December 2014

4 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 8.

5 Global Slavery Index 2016

6 Vatican Radio, “Cardinal Pell: Vatican will ‘slave-proof’ supply chain”, 19 January 2016.

7 Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development (2009), 66.

8 Pope Francis, Way of the Cross, 25 March 2016, 6th Station.