February 9, 2021
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
When we consider the saints, many receive ongoing devotion and attention through association with a nationality, such as St. Patrick and Ireland and St. Joan of Arc and France. Or, saints are remembered through the order they founded, as the members continue to share the saint’s words and directions. The saints that come immediately to mind are St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits; St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans; St. Dominic, founder of the Dominicans; and St. Clare, foundress of the Poor Clares. Additionally, some saints are remembered for the special way they touch our souls. These saints seem to resonate with particular aspects of our society.
Yesterday was the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita. As reported by Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical, Spe Salvi, he writes:
She was a young Sudanese girl at the age of nine who was kidnapped by slave traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually, she found herself working as a slave for the mother and wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day until she bled. As a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882 she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as enemies of the country advanced. In Venice after all the terrifying “masters” who had owned her, she came to know a different master not one who would brutalize her but instead know and love her and who himself was even flogged for her. This was the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was waiting for her at the right hand of the Father. Josephine said that she was definitely loved and whatever happened to her—she was awaited by His love. And so, my life is good. (Spe Salvi, par. 3)
St. Josephine lived with the Canossian Sisters in Venice, where she was introduced to Jesus and His Church. When she reached the age of majority, she was granted her freedom through the enactment of Italian law. Once freed, she refused to return to Sudan, wishing instead to remain committed to God. In 1896, she joined the Canossian Daughters of Charity. She served as a member of the Order for 25 years until her death, promoting the missions and proclaiming the liberation she received through her encounter with Christ.
In every stretch of the imagination, she should have died in obscurity. What makes Josephine Bakhita so interesting is that her story served to inspire Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi. To come to know God – the true God – means to receive hope. Hope transformed this woman who should have been bitter about her life, but rather, she described her life as good.
We need the example of St. Josephine as we confront life’s difficulties. Currently, we are encountering the pandemic, social unrest, etc. These difficulties can lead us to become frustrated and despairing. We can forget the love that God has bestowed on us – the love that brings us life. Jesus has born the cross for us; now we must bear the cross for Him. We carry the cross out of love and promote His love to others. With God, there is hope.
Coinciding with the feast of St. Josephine, yesterday was also the International Day of Prayer Against Human Trafficking. The Sudanese slave girl reminds us that the struggles of slavery and abuse still exist today and we must be ready to confront these ills because our Master directs us to always LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee