10 Feb 2022

Chapel of our Lady of the Rosary and St Peter Chanel, Domus Australia, Rome, 8 February 2022

It is hard to believe, but as recently as 1889 chattel slavery was still possible here in Italy, even if technically illegal.

Born in Darfur, Sudan, around 1869, a girl was kidnapped when aged 7 or 8 by Arab slave traders. She was made to walk barefoot 1,000 km to El-Obeid, forced to convert to Islam, and given the Arab name ‘Bakhita’ meaning lucky. Sold as a slave five times in all, she suffered repeated abuse, including elaborate scarification of her breasts, belly and arms, and being repeated lashed.

Whether by luck or (as Bakhita would later insist) by divine providence, she was eventually sold to the kindly Italian Vice-Consul in Khartoum, Callisto Legnani. The year-long Siege of Khartoum in 1884 by troops loyal to Muhammed Ahmad Mahdi ended with the massacre of General Gordon and the Anglo-Egyptian garrison, but not before Gordon had secured the escape of 2,500 civilians including Legnani and his slave girl. On return to Italy, he gave the girl to a friendly family near Venice to be nanny to their daughter. When the man of the house returned to Sudan to sort out investments there, Bakhita and the child were placed with the Canossian Sisters in Venice. When her owner returned to claim her, Bakhita refused to leave the convent and with the help of the superior and the archbishop, her cause was brought before the Italian courts which held that her captivity was illegal.

For the first time in her life, Bakhita found herself in control of her own destiny. On 9 January 1890, aged 21, she was baptized with the name Josephine Margaret and confirmed with the name Fortunata (Latin for Bakhita) by none other than the Patriarch of Venice—the future Pope St Pius X. Bakhita’s faith matured and by 1896 she entered the Canossian sisters. In 1902 she was assigned to the convent in Schio, where she spent the rest of her years. She was their cook, sacristan and doorkeeper. The towns-people loved her as their little brown sister and eventually as Nostra Madre Moretta, our black mother. The publication of her life story in 1931 made her famous and she was appointed for a time as a formator of missionaries to Africa. During the Second World War she shared the fears and hopes of the townspeople, who felt protected by her saintly presence: despite being repeatedly bombed Schio had not a single casualty.

Josephine Bakhita died on this day, 8 February, in 1947. The next patriarch of Venice, Roncalli, who became Pope St John XXIII, introduced her cause. One of the first saints canonised in the third millennium, St John Paul II named her patron of survivors of human trafficking. It is estimated that over 40 million people, mostly women and children, are trafficked around the world today, controlled, treated as property, exploited sexually or for their organs or labour, pressed into service as beggars, drug mules, even combatants. There are thousands here in Italy, as there are in Australia. And so the Holy Father has called us to a World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against Human Trafficking on this day each year.

I’m proud to say that the Archdiocese of Sydney has led the way in Australia in slavery proofing its supply lines, educating our people and the public about the issue, lobbying government for greater protections, and providing assistance to survivors.

Last Sunday Pope Francis blessed a bronze statue temporarily erected in St Peter’s Square. The statue of our saint is dedicated to the victims of trafficking and those heroic women, especially religious sisters, who work to combat this evil. Bakhita represents “so many girls”, the Holy Father said, locked away or even out in the open, who are enslaved for economic or other interests, deeply wounded, not respected as human persons. We like to think of slavery as something from ancient Egypt or Rome, or something it took a civil war to stop in America around the time of Josephine’s birth. But no, “this is happening in our own cities today,” the Pope reminds us. He asks us to pray and work where we can to prevent the exploitation of people, especially women and girls.

“Will God really live with men?” Solomon asks today as he consecrates altar and temple in Jerusalem. Will the infinite One abide in the finitude of a building or a human soul? “O Lord my God,” he says on behalf of Bakhita and all suffering humanity, “Listen to the prayer and entreaty of your servant. From your heavenly dwelling hear and answer.” (1 Kings 8:22-30)

St Josephine Bakhita FDCC prega per noi.