St. Josephine Bakhita: Our “Universal Sister”


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: 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

Responding to Pope Francis’ Call to Fight Human Trafficking

IMG_0068Today, July 30, is the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.

Within weeks of the historical papal transition in 2013, Msgr. Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences, received a succinct, hand-written note in Spanish from the newly elected Supreme Pontiff: “I think it would be good to examine human trafficking and modern slavery. Organ trafficking could be examined in connection with human trafficking. Many thanks, Francis.” Those few lines came to signal Pope Francis’ ardent insistence that the Universal Church bring to bear her great moral authority and resources in the global fight against human trafficking. In his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis forcefully urges the faithful, and all men and women of goodwill, to radically evaluate unknowing societal and personal complicity in this crime, echoing the convicting question God posed to Cain in the book of Genesis after he had murdered his brother, Abel: “‘Where is your brother?’ (Gen. 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labor?”

As he prepares for his Apostolic Visit to our country, Pope Francis can be proud of his brother bishops in the United States.  USCCB/Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), since 2013, has been implementing the Amistad Movement, a novel human trafficking prevention program that capitalizes on the gifts and talents of the very communities most at-risk for human trafficking. Firmly anchored in our Catholic commitment to subsidiarity and accompaniment, and utilizing a “train-the-trainer” model, the Amistad Movement uses the Church’s extensive, trusted, grassroots presence within immigrant communities to educate local leaders, pastors, parents, students, activists, and interested community members on precise strategies designed to protect their own against human traffickers.  Therein lies Amistad´s greatest strength: MRS educates immigrant communities in a spirit of self-empowerment that leverages the immigrant leaders’ expertise and strengths to make our human trafficking prevention education as culturally relevant and intelligible as possible. Amistad also fosters collaboration amongst community members and between them and law enforcement and other stakeholders, further fortifying their communities against human trafficking by constructing professional and social networks.

For Catholics who might ask themselves how they can contribute to the Church’s efforts against modern slavery now, MRS anti-trafficking encourages them to request the SHEPHERD toolkit by emailing us at This educational tool provides Catholics with materials to learn about human trafficking from a Catholic perspective using principles from the Social Doctrine of the Church to understand why Catholics in particular are called to raise awareness and respond to human trafficking wherever they can. In addition to information on human trafficking, the toolkit provides a movie-watching guide which can be used as a springboard for discussion and further learning about human trafficking. The kit also has a Stations of the Cross for Victims of Human Trafficking, which can be used to pray for victims, survivors, service providers, and awareness raisers, and to continue educating Catholic communities on modern day slavery.

The Church’s great strength in this fight against human trafficking is its empowering message against slavery of all types, spiritual and physical. In the words of Cardinal Peter Turkson, “Our awareness must expand and extend to the very depths of this evil and its farthest reaches . . . from awareness to prayer . . .  from prayer to solidarity . . . and from solidarity to concerted action, until slavery and trafficking are no more.”

Christopher S. Ljungquist is National Outreach and Education Coordinator, Anti-Trafficking, for the USCCB Department of Migration and Refugee Services.