Beautiful Saint Bakhita
St. Josephine Bakhita is an attractive African saint whose emergence from bondage as a slave to the joy of freedom can teach many lessons. While few may have to endure the extent of her sufferings, all may benefit from her example. She is a beautiful model of good triumphing over bad experiences, of love conquering hate, and mercy defeating evil.
The Journey Begins
Every journey has a starting point, and Bakhita’s began in Darfur, Sudan, around 1869. Her father was a relatively wealthy landowner and her uncle was the village chief. She had a happy childhood, surrounded by a large, loving family. “I was as happy as could be,” she says, “And did not know the meaning of sorrow.” She enjoyed the wild natural surroundings near to her village with her three brothers and three sisters. Unfortunately, these carefree days passed like a summer breeze.
Journey Into Slavery
While Bakhita and a friend were gathering herbs one morning in the countryside, two armed men came up to them. They were Arab slave traders. They took Bakhita captive and dismissed the friend. Because she was too petrified to pronounce her given name, they called her Bakhita, which ironically means lucky one in Arabic. Only with time would the reality of her good fortune come to light; she had first to endure many sorrows.
Thus, in her first days of captivity, she had to travel 600 miles to El Obeid by foot. In her memoirs, she remembers the anguished longing for her parents and family during those first days of bondage. At one point, she managed to escape with a girl about her own age. As they were running in the wilderness until near exhaustion, Bakhita looked up in the night sky. She saw a radiantly beautiful figure smiling at her and pointing which way to go. A few hours later, they found a cabin with a man there, who gave them food and water. Though she ended up back in slavery, Bakhita later believed that it was her guardian angel shining in the sky. Without his help, she likely would have died in the wilderness.
Her passage through life during the next twelve years was indeed a sorrowful one. Hardly a day passed when she was not whipped or beaten. She was salt-scarred and forcibly converted to Islam. In the trauma of abduction and hardship, she forgot her original name. Nonetheless, the name Bakhita, or “fortunate one,” given by the slave traders, is not without providential meaning. Her next steps in life would lead to a brighter future.
Journey to Freedom
After being bought and resold three times, Bakhita’s fourth owner was an Italian named Callisto Legnani. He was a member of the Italian Consul stationed in Sudan. Unlike her previous owners, he treated Bakhita with kindness. When the time came for him to return to Italy, she begged to travel with him. He agreed, but on the ship to Italy, he gave her to his friends, Augusto and Maria Michieli, who needed a nanny for their daughter. They lived in Mirano, not far from Venice.
The Michieli’s daughter, nicknamed Mimmina, became very fond of Bakhita. The parents also were pleased to have Bakhita as a helper and treated her with dignity. Augusto had the idea of opening a hotel in Sudan, and so left his wife to manage affairs in Italy. Later, his wife, child, and Bakhita joined him for about nine months. Augusto then decided to make his permanent home there. He sent his wife back to sell the property in Italy. As Bakhita prepared for the journey to Italy, she understood that she would never see Africa again. “I bade in my heart an eternal farewell to Africa,” she says. “An inner voice told me I would never see it again.” Back home in Italy, Mrs. Michieli started feeling lonesome for her husband. She entrusted her daughter and Bakhita to the Canossian Sisters in Venice who ran a school for poor girls. Mrs. Michieli later regretted this decision.
Journey to Faith
“Oh, if she had realized what was going to happen,” Bakhita said later of Mrs. Michieli, “She’d never have brought me there!” The Canossian Sisters welcomed Bakhita as a boarder. Though her ability to speak Italian was limited, she felt comfortable around them. Moreover, she knew she could always communicate with God. In her free moments, she prayed before an ancient icon from Crete, a so-called “black Madonna.” She also felt a mysterious attraction to Christ on the crucifix.
Seeing her piety, the sisters asked Bakhita if she had an interest in becoming a Christian, and she responded “yes.” Bakhita’s spiritual journey took more definite shape at this point. She remembers, “Those holy Mothers instructed me with heroic patience, and brought me into a relationship with God whom, ever since I was a child, I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”
A beautiful year passed in which Bakhita traveled step by step into deeper faith. This dream was disturbed with the return of Maria Michieli, who requested that Bakhita depart with her to Africa. Though Bakhita loved Maria, she refused; “No. I won’t leave the House of Our Lord. It would be the ruin of me.” As Maria was adamant, this squabble eventually came to the ears of the Patriarch of Venice, who consulted the King’s procurator. The procurator informed Maria that slavery was illegal in Italy, and Bakhita was a free woman. Bakhita continued her schooling in the faith, receiving baptism and first Holy Communion on January 9, 1890. All present took note of her radiance, as though God gave a foretaste of the light towards which she traveled. She spent the next four years as a student with the Sisters.
Journey to Sanctity
During her time as a student, Bakhita felt increasingly drawn to become a Sister herself. The Mother Superior not only agreed but wished to have the joy of clothing Bakhita in the religious habit. This occurred on December 7, 1893. Three years later, she pronounced her vows.
Her steps towards the light were not by great leaps. Rather, by simply carrying out each day’s responsibilities with love and attentiveness, she grew ever more illumined. In her first ten years as a nun, the superior assigned her with various duties in the kitchen, with cleaning, and especially with embroidering vestments and handcrafting items made with beads. At age forty, she became the head cook for the convent, a role in which she excelled.
Everybody loved “Black Mother” for her simplicity, humility, and constant joy. In 1927, her superiors asked her to dictate her memoirs to Ida Zanolini. This biography, A Marvelous Story, became a huge success and made a celebrity of the humble nun. She disliked being in the spotlight, yet countless visitors came to meet her.
By 1932, the superiors wanted to promote Bakhita’s celebrity status as a way of helping the missions in Africa. She therefore went on tour with another sister who did most of the speaking. Enormous crowds gathered to see and admire the former slave who became a nun. It was a tremendous nuisance for Bakhita to be on stage before the multitudes. However, it gave her the means to become perfect in the virtues of humility, patience, and charity.
Journey Into Old Age
As Bakhita advanced in age, her superiors relieved her of her duty as the cook. She then became the doorkeeper. By age seventy, arthritis and the injuries received as a slave impaired her ability to walk. She retired permanently to the Canossian convent in Schio, Italy. She started using a cane in 1942 and a wheelchair in 1943. Nonetheless, she journeyed onto the goal, unwearied in soul.
When Allied bombs started falling on Schio, she never showed fear. The sisters begged to take her to the bomb shelter, but she said firmly, “No, no, Our Lord saved me from the lions and the panthers; do you think he can’t save me from the bombs?” She assured everyone that God would spare the houses in Schio. Though a factory was bombed, no houses were destroyed. The townsfolk were convinced of her closeness to God.
Journey to the Light
Bakhita’s final years were marked with sickness and pain, nonetheless, she remained ever cheerful, saying, “As the Master desires.” Her long trek reached its terminus in 1947. On the morning of Feb 8, a priest asked if she would like to receive Holy Communion. Bakhita responded, “I’d better, because afterwards there’ll be no point ... I’m going to heaven.”
In the evening, she experienced some delirium, as she thought herself bound in chains again. "The chains are too tight,” she told the infirmarian, “loosen them a little, please!" She explained to the sister that she needed to tell St. Peter to bring the Madonna to her. At that very moment, Bakhita’s countenance lit up as though she actually saw the Madonna. Somebody asked how she was doing, and she responded, "Yes, I am so happy: Our Lady... Our Lady!" With these words, her earthly chains broke forever: the Light beckoned her home.
When a person loves another person dearly, he desires strongly to be close to the other. Therefore, why be afraid to die?— St. Bakhita
Journey to Sainthood
"Rejoice, all of Africa! Bakhita has come back to you. The daughter of Sudan sold into slavery as a living piece of merchandise and yet still free: free with the freedom of the saints." Pope John Paul said to these words on a visit to Sudan in 1993. This pope greatly helped Bakhita’s cause towards canonization.
The process of canonization is slow and goes through various stages. Pope John XXIII officially opened the process in 1959. Pope John Paul declared her Venerable in 1978, beatified her in 1992, and canonized her in 2000. The latter two stages normally require two medically confirmed miracles.
The first accepted miracle involved the complete healing of a nun from Bakhita’s own congregation. The nun, while still young, experienced a severe disintegration of her knees, known as arthritic synovitis. From 1939 onward, she suffered terribly and was bedridden. In 1948, as she was due for surgery, she prayed a nine-day novena to Bakhita. The night before her operation, she awoke with a clear voice saying to her, “Get up, wake up, get up and walk!” The nun obeyed and started walking around the room, something she hadn’t done in years. The doctors x-rayed her and found no trace of the disease. The second approved miracle involved the total healing of a woman from Brazil, Eva de Costa, who was afflicted with diabetic ulcers in her legs. She prayed, “Bakhita, you who suffered so much, please help me, heal my legs!” Her ulcers and pain disappeared at that very moment.
Lessons from St. Bakhita’s Journey
A student once asked Bakhita what she would do if she met her former captors. She responded, "If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today."
Three virtues reveal themselves from this one statement. In the first place, it shows her forgiveness: she long ago severed any chains of hatred and bitterness. Next, it reveals her faith: she saw God’s mysterious providence at work even in the worst of sufferings. Finally, it illustrates her gratitude. She was deeply grateful for finding her way to God and becoming a nun.
Though slavery is still a reality in many countries today, it seems remote for persons living in more civilized countries. Nonetheless, suffering is an experience of all, regardless of their social status. St. Bakhita offers an example of hope to those who suffer: good can triumph over bad experiences.
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