St. Josephine Bakhita: Our “Universal Sister”

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Icon written by Br. Claude Lane of Mount Angel Abbey

As Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) at USCCB prepares to host its historic Interfaith Prayer Service for Victims of Human Trafficking on February 8, it is fitting to pause for a moment and consider St. Josephine Bakhita, an extraordinary woman whose life the Church celebrates on that day.

When St. John Paul II canonized St. Josephine, he proclaimed her the “Universal Sister.” Considering that Pontiff´s lifelong struggle against tyranny and oppression of all sorts, the logic behind that proclamation is clearly seen. Slavery, an ancient evil that shackles bodies and souls, is cruelly alive and well today, destroying the lives of people around the world, It is a “universal injustice.” St. Josephine´s life reminds us that within the heart of every enslaved person is the divine image yearning to be free, for “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” as St. Irenaeus so forcefully declared.

As human trafficking increases its devastating onslaught worldwide, God shows us an intrepid example of empowerment and dignity in this audacious saint. Born to a virtuous animist family in late 19th century Sudan, at the age of nine Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped by Arab slavers. She endured a succession of brutal “owners” who degraded, tortured, and, in a manner alike many traffickers today, “branded” her with tattoos denoting ownership.  Eventually she became servant a noble Venetian family, who took her to Italy, where she served as the children´s much beloved nanny. Because the family needed to tend to their business interests in Africa, however, St. Josephine was left at the Institute of the Catechumens for a year, in the care of the Canossian Sisters.

For the family who wanted to hold on to their slave, this was a big mistake. For, with the Sisters St. Josephine first heard the most radically liberating message in human history: Christ had died for her, and she was beloved from all eternity by Him, who she recognized as “that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who he was.” When Lady Turina, her former “owner,” came back for her, St. Josephine had already made her choice: “No, I will not leave the house of the Lord.” The next few days were intense, with Turina threatening and harassing Josephine Bakhita and the Sisters. Finally, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice himself came and defended St. Josephine´s freedom, armed with a favorable verdict from the kingdom´s attorney general.

Like many traffickers today, Lady Turina tried to use “love” as a mechanism of control, the love that the saint had for the household´s children. To no avail: “It was the Lord who filled me with such firmness, because he wanted to make me all His.”

In the words of the Archbishop of Khartoum, a pastor in an enslaved land, we entrust the vulnerable to her intercession: “All of you who are refugees, oppressed, exhausted, and without a roof—you are `Bakhita.’ All of you who are victims of injustice and exploitation, victims of discrimination and of persecution—you are `Bakhita.` And God´s love and tenderness embrace you.”

We hope that all readers residing in Washington will join us in person on February 8 to lift up our voices in prayer for the freedom of trafficking victims. If you are not in Washington, you can consider organizing a prayer service or gathering on February 8. Visit our website for more details: http://www.usccb.org/about/anti-trafficking-program/day-of-prayer.cfm and download the Interfaith Prayer Service Invite.

Prayer is spiritual action, as St. Josephine reminded us before departing: “If the Lord allows it, I will send so many graces from paradise for the salvation of souls.” Let´s take her up on that promise.

 

IMG_0068Christopher S. Ljungquist is the National Outreach and Education coordinator for USCCB/MRS Anti-Trafficking Program. If you have any questions about the Interfaith Prayer Service on February 8, contact him at: CLJUNGQUIST@USCCB.ORG

National Migration Week 2016: “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me”

M7-460_NMW PosterIn the Gospel of Matthew (25:35) Jesus tells his disciples, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The call to welcome the stranger plays an important role in the lives of faithful Christians and holds central place for those of us who work in the migration field. The migrant, who moves from one country to another, is truly a stranger in our midst. Often unfamiliar with the local tongue of the new country, not to mention its customs, the migrant needs the support of local communities so that she can better adjust to her new surroundings. National Migration Week 2016 picks up on the theme of welcome and, in doing so, calls on each of us to welcome the stranger among us.

Sadly, every year seems to bring a new migration crisis to the forefront.

In 2014, the United States witnessed a significant influx of unaccompanied migrant children and families fleeing violence in their homelands. Most of these migrants came from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. The Catholic Church has taken seriously the humanitarian and policy oriented aspects of this situation and advocates in support of increased protections for migrant children and their families who are arriving in the United States.

In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis took center stage. Since its outbreak, at least four million Syrians have fled their country as a consequence of the civil war and the rise of ISIS. Most have fled to surrounding countries, especially Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Many others have moved on to Europe with the hope of finding a place of peace and safety. Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops have called on the U.S. government and the international community to provide support to both Syrian refugees fleeing violence and to countries that have been at the forefront of this humanitarian effort. In a related statement, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged:

 … all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.

In both the unaccompanied migrant child and Syrian refugee crises, the Catholic Church’s call to provide protections and support for these vulnerable people has often gone unheeded and has been instead met by demands to implement further restrictions on migration to the United States.

In the case of Syrians, suggestions have been made to ban Muslim migrants from entering the United States altogether. In the case of unaccompanied children, legislative efforts were undertaken to limit their international protections.

The Catholic bishops neither support a policy of open borders nor a process of unregulated migration from one country to another. Rather, they continue to defend the duties of the international community to implement internationally agreed upon protections that are due to vulnerable migrants, and to call upon world leaders to provide a place of welcome, wherever possible, to those who are fleeing an impossible situation.

This position is rooted in the Gospel, and concretely in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB. 


See additional 2016 National Migration Week resources, including a bilingual prayer card.

On the Tragedy in San Bernardino

IMG_2131The mass shooting on December 2nd has devastated our communities here in the Diocese of San Bernardino. We continue to pray for the repose of the souls of the 14 victims that lost their lives in this terrible shooting.

The husband of the principal of our Catholic Parish School at Sacred Heart in Rancho Cucamonga was one of the victims. His name was Mr. Damian Meins. His funeral was on Friday, December 11th. Our prayers go out to the family of Mr. Meins and all of the families who have lost their loved ones. Mr. Damian Meins worked for the County of Riverside for 28 years and had recently begun working for the San Bernardino County of Environmental Health Department. He was also the physical education teacher at St. Catherine of Alexandria School in Riverside and for the past few years had dressed up as Santa for the school. He is remembered as being kind-hearted, compassionate, and caring.

Before the shooting happened, we at the Social Concerns Office of the Diocese of San Bernardino had organized a Taize Prayer in collaboration with the Global Solidarity Diocesan Committee, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and Sacred Heart Parish in Rancho Cucamonga. The Taize prayer vigil was to show solidarity for refugees and the victims of the Paris attack. We had distributed the flyer months ahead of time. It is a deep mystery to see that the same parish that helped organize a prayer to show solidarity for victims of terrorist violence was now directly affected by senseless violence in their own city.

On December 4th, two days after the mass shooting, the organizing committee gathered to revise the Taize Prayer to integrate a special prayer to show solidarity for the 14 victims of the San Bernardino tragedy and specifically for Mr. Meins and his family. The diocese, parish, and school community gathered to pray and light candles for healing and peace. Most Reverend Bishop Barnes, Bishop of San Bernardino and Rev. Benedict C. Nwaschukwu, Parish Pastor guided us in our prayer.

IMG_1948The presence of Bishop Barnes was especially meaningful to the healing process of the Sacred Heart Parish community. Bishop, our pastor, was with us.

In times of deep suffering it is healing to experience clear signs of Emmanuel: God with us. “Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.” ( Psalm 23:4) Bishop Barnes was with his people and expressed his empathy and solidarity. He said: “For some of us, it will take much longer to heal. And we respect where each person is in their pain, in their anger, in their sorrow, in their confusion.”

He added: “Let your hearts and your minds be open to God’s message for you, for all of us, for our communities and our families. Be open to where our God, a God of mercy and love, leads us.”IMG_2237

At the end of the prayer, the students of Sacred Heart Parish School offered fresh roses in memory of Mr. Meins.

On December 7th, two days after the Taize Prayer at Sacred Heart Parish, an interreligious prayer vigil at San Bernardino’s Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral was organized in order to comfort friends and families of the victims, first responders and other civic leaders affected by the Dec. 2 attack. Inland Congregations United for Change, a group Catholic Campaign for Human Development has supported, was key in organizing the interfaith prayer vigil. Bishop Barnes gave the opening address and expressed: “We want what is good for our community. We do not want evil to win over our hearts, our pain to paralyze our future. We do not want our hearts to turn against any person, any race, any religion.”

As a community, we are discerning ways to continue our healing process. WeIMG_1972 understand it may be a slow and long process. People are afraid and have many mixed emotions. However, we as a faith community would like to be a source of hope because as Bishop Barnes expressed at the interreligious prayer vigil: “We believe that love is greater than hate; courage greater than fear; unity greater than separation.”

We, at the Diocese of San Bernardino, are thankful to all the people who have expressed their support in these challenging times. Thank you for letting us know that we are not alone; that you are with us in your prayers and acts of solidarity.

Sr. Hortensia Del Villar, SAC is the Director of Social Concerns in the Diocese of San Bernardino.

Photos by Andres Rivera, courtesy of the Diocese of San Bernardino


Related: Statement from Archbishop Kurtz, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, on December 14, 2015

10 Ways to Participate in Pope Francis’ US Visit

USCCB offers these tips for ways to participate in Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to see Pope Francis when he visits the United States. Even if you are not among those who will see the Holy Father in person, you can still make his visit a time of spiritual renewal and evangelization by following the suggestions below.Logo: Love is our mission, Pope Francis 2015

  1. Take part in a “Virtual Pilgrimage” with these prayers as the Holy Father makes his way to more than a dozen different locations in Washington, DC, New York City, and Philadelphia.
  2. Learn more about the places Pope Francis will visit by following his journey on this interactive map.
  3. Become “Pope Francis literate” by reading his two encyclical letters: Lumen Fidei  and Laudato Si.
  4. Stay up-to-date and read insightful commentary by connecting with the only news source founded and supported by the US Bishops, Catholic News Service.
  5. Have a Papal Visit Watch Party!  All events will be live streamed in English with audio commentary here.  Select events will also be available for video on demand here.
  6. Take your faith and the latest papal visit news with you on the go by downloading the Catholic Church app for IOS at the iTunes store
    or for Android devices on Google Play.
  7. Respond to Pope Francis’s call to enounter by reaching out to those in need, supporting parish or community charitable efforts, acting to promote life, human dignity, families and religious freedom, and by caring for creation. Find ideas here.
  8. Invite a non-Catholic or non-practicing Catholic friend to Mass next weekend so they can experience the joy of the Gospel!
  9. Engage in social media: use our hash tags #PopeinUS and #PapaEnUSA.  Don’t forget to use some Pope emojis!
  10. Support the many people working to make Pope Francis’ historic US visit a success by praying for them to the Blessed Virgin under her title  Mary, Undoer of Knots (a favorite of Pope Francis). Include in your intentions: Vatican staff, the US Secret Service, the US Bishops, their staff and volunteers, the World Meeting of Families committee and volunteers, and the three host archdioceses and host cities.

Find more information about the Papal Visit, including links to top new stories, the Pope’s schedule in the United States, and text of all his speeches and homilies once they are given at USCCB’s website.


Find out more ways to respond to Pope Francis’ call during his visit to the United States! Sign up now for JPHD’s Papal Visit alerts on Sept. 22-28. The daily emails will include updates, resources, and ways you can act on the Holy Father’s call. The alerts will also highlight sharable content from JPHD Facebook and Twitter pages.

Pope Francis’ Prayer for Jubilee Year of Mercy

This week, Pope Francis released his prayer for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which is December 8, 2015 through November 20, 2016.

The beautiful prayer is a call “to go forth,” transformed by the Father’s mercy and Jesus’ “loving gaze” as we encounter his “visible face in the world.”  Quoting Luke 4:18, Pope Francis prays for a Church which brings good news to people in poverty, liberty to those who are oppressed, and restoration of sight to those who are blind.

Read the full prayer on Vatican Radio’s website.