Bookmark and Share

Saint Josephine Bakhita

Former slave from Sudan, became a Canossian nun in Italy
Born c 1869; died on 8 February 1947
Beatified in 1992 and canonized in Jubilee 2000 by St John Paul II
Feast day - 8th February

Josephine Bakhita was canonized along with Augustine Zhao Rong and his 119 companions (martyrs in China), María Josefa of the Heart of Jesus Sancho de Guerra & Katharine Mary Drexel, on the feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux in the Jubilee Year 2000. 

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical on hope Spe Salvi  

3. .. The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869 - she herself did not know the precise date - in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she 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 the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till 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 the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master” - in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her - that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father's right hand”. Now she had “hope” - no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me - I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world - without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”. On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter's lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.

Pope St John Paul II's homily at Mass with her Canonization
Sunday, 1st October 2000 - in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Your word is truth; sanctify us in your love" . This invocation, an echo of Christ's prayer to the Father after the Last Supper, seems to rise from the host of saints and blesseds whom the Spirit of God continues to raise up in his Church from generation to generation.

Today, 2,000 years since the beginning of Redemption, we make these words our own, while we have before us as models of holiness Augustine Zhao Rong and his 119 companions, martyrs in China, María Josefa of the Heart of Jesus Sancho de Guerra, Katharine Mary Drexel and Josephine Bakhita. God the Father "sanctified them in his love", granting the request of the Son, who opened his arms on the Cross, put an end to death and revealed the resurrection, in order to win for the Father a holy people.

I extend my cordial greeting to you all, dear brothers and sisters, gathered here in great numbers to express your devotion to these shining witnesses of the Gospel.

...."The law of the Lord is perfect, ... it gives wisdom to the simple" (Ps 19: 8). These words from today's Responsorial Psalm resound powerfully in the life of Sr Josephine Bakhita. Abducted and sold into slavery at the tender age of seven, she suffered much at the hands of cruel masters. But she came to understand the profound truth that God, and not man, is the true Master of every human being, of every human life. This experience became a source of great wisdom for this humble daughter of Africa.

In today's world, countless women continue to be victimized, even in developed modern societies. In St Josephine Bakhita we find a shining advocate of genuine emancipation. The history of her life inspires not passive acceptance but the firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence, and to return them to their dignity in the full exercise of their rights.

My thoughts turn to the new saint's country, which has been torn by a cruel war for the past 17 years, with little sign of a solution in sight. In the name of suffering humanity I appeal once more to those with responsibility: open your hearts to the cries of millions of innocent victims and embrace the path of negotiation. I plead with the international community: do not continue to ignore this immense human tragedy. I invite the whole Church to invoke the intercession of St Bakhita upon all our persecuted and enslaved brothers and sisters, especially in Africa and in her native Sudan, that they may know reconciliation and peace.

Lastly, I address an affectionate greeting to the Canossian Daughters of Charity, who are rejoicing today because their sister has been raised to the glory of the altars. From the example of St Josephine Bakhita may they be able to draw renewed encouragement for generous dedication in the service of God and neighbour.

Dear brothers and sisters, encouraged by this time of Jubilee grace, let us renew our willingness to be deeply purified and sanctified by the Spirit. We are also drawn to this path by the saint whose memorial we celebrate today: Thérèse of the Child Jesus. To her, patroness of the missions, and to the new saints we entrust the mission of the Church at the beginning of the third millennium.

May Mary, Queen of All Saints, support the steps of Christians and of all who are docile to the Spirit of God, so that the light of Christ the Saviour will spread to every part of the world.

Papa San Giovanni Paolo II's homily at her beatification
Rome, 18 May 1992 - in Italian

"Carissime Suore Canossiane “Figlie della Carità”, e ugualmente cari e amati Sacerdoti e fedeli partecipanti a questa Udienza!

Il 2 ottobre del 1988 ebbi la grande gioia di dichiarare “Santa” Madre Maddalena di Canossa, Fondatrice della Famiglia religiosa dei “Figli e delle Figlie della Carità”, appartenente a un nobile casato di Verona, ben noto in quel periodo di tempo e benefico lungo la storia d’Italia. E ieri ho avuto la fortuna di dichiarare “Beata” una sua figlia spirituale, Suor Giuseppina Bakhita, che doveva pur provenire da una agiata famiglia del Sudan, nella regione del Darfur, ma che all’età di nove anni fu rapita da due negrieri e ridotta in schiavitù. Fu tale il terrore per questa crudele e improvvisa vicenda, che la bambina dimenticò perfino il proprio nome davanti al negriero che la interrogava, cosicché - per ironia e disprezzo - le fu imposto il nome di “Bakhita”, che significa “Fortunata”. Povera Bakhita! Quanto dovette soffrire negli anni della sua fanciullezza e della sua giovinezza! Fu venduta per ben cinque volte, passando da una situazione penosa a un’altra peggiore. C’è veramente da rabbrividire pensando alle crudeltà alle quali essa con le altre schiave venne sottoposta, fin quando, finalmente, al seguito di due italiani giunse in Italia, a Genova prima e poi a Venezia. E qui, dopo un anno di catecumenato, il 9 gennaio ricevette il battesimo, tanto atteso e sospirato, con il nome di Giuseppina. Tre anni dopo entrò nel noviziato della vostra Congregazione, care Sorelle Canossiane, professando quindi i voti religiosi nella vostra Casa Madre di Verona l’8 dicembre 1896. Destinata in seguito a Schio, al Centro comprendente asilo, orfanotrofio, oratorio festivo e scuole, la sua vita fu tutta dedita ai lavori più umili - come cuoca, sacrestana, portinaia, rammendatrice e ortolana - che ella compì sempre con fervore religioso e con ardore di carità.

Elevata ora all’onore degli altari e posta come esempio davanti alla Chiesa intera, la beata Giuseppina Bakhita, nella sua umiltà e nel suo totale abbandono in Dio, ci insegna non soltanto a lavorare e a pregare, ma soprattutto a confidare. Dalle sue dolorose vicende aveva imparato, con la grazia di Dio, ad avere completa fiducia in Lui, che è presente sempre e dappertutto, e ad essere, pertanto, costantemente e con tutti buona e generosa. Sempre lieta e serena, compiva con gioia il suo dovere, accettando, infine, con coraggio e rassegnazione anche la lunga e penosa malattia, senza mai lamentarsi e senza mai parlare male di nessuno. Così essa diceva: “Se incontrassi quei negrieri che mi hanno rapita, e anche quelli che mi hanno torturata, mi inginocchierei a baciare le loro mani, perché se non fosse accaduto ciò, non sarei ora cristiana e religiosa”. Vedeva, cioè, la mano provvidenziale dell’Altissimo, che guida e sostiene la storia umana, non abbandonando mai chi a Lui si affida, anche se molte volte consente che egli passi attraverso avvenimenti oscuri e impenetrabili. Alla luce della Grazia, Suor Giuseppina Bakhita aveva scoperto che “non è importante quello che sembra tale, ma quello che vuole il Signore”. Ora la beata Giuseppina Bakhita ci sta ancora più vicino con il suo esempio e la sua intercessione. Quando a 78 anni, l’8 febbraio 1947, ella si spense, le sue ultime parole furono: “La Madonna! La Madonna!”, mentre sorridendo entrava nell’eternità. Seguendo l’esempio della sua devozione a Maria Santissima, invochiamo in modo speciale, durante il mese di maggio, l’aiuto della Nostra Madre celeste per rimanere fermi nella nostra fede e insieme operosi sempre nell’esercizio della bontà e della carità!

To the Bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful of the Sudan, the example of Blessed Josephine Bakhita speaks of the difficulties and sufferings which continue to be so much a part of your people’s history. In her body she bore the signs of terrible injustice. Yet, in her soul there shone forth the light of an inner strength which eventually found its fulfilment in the grace of Baptism and the profession of the evangelical counsels among the Daughters of Charity of Canossa.

Today, her luminous example speaks to her brothers and sisters of the Church in the Sudan about the courage of faith and the power of evangelical love in the face of intense distress. Blessed Josephine Bakhita’s life points to the victory of God’s love over the ravages of sin and evil. It presents a striking example of the role of reconciliation in Christian life and practice. Her Beatification therefore is a sign of the universal Church’s closeness to you as, with complete trust in the Lord, you seek a just solution to the sufferings of so many in your land, as you alleviate the consequences of long-standing conflict, and as you use appropriate means to defend the fundamental human right to religious freedom.

Our prayer to Blessed Josephine Bakhita embraces the whole of the Sudanese people and all the peoples of Africa. We ask her intercession for the peace and harmony of that beloved Continent, especially for the plight of the victims of famine, the refugees, the sick and the defenceless.

Upon all of you, your families and communities, I invoke abundant blessings from Almighty God."