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.
Christopher 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