LEARNING FROM SAINT BAKHITA
The Bulli Bai app, whereby youth have been auctioning women has been sending waves of shock and disgust in recent times. Yet, the overpowering and oppression of humans by humans is as old as Cain and Abel. Modalities differ, extents differ, places differ, but the fact that there are perpetrators and victims of such obnoxious practices is not unknown. Human trafficking continues to fracture the sanctity of humanity even in our advanced modern generation.
The Universal Sister
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Josephine Bakhita, a victim and survivor of human abuse, but who at the turn of the 20th century was canonized as the Patron Saint of human trafficking by Pope Francis.
Bakhita appears to have been born in Olgossa, Sudan, to a well-to-do household. The few years she spent with her family gave her a sound emotional and moral fabric which stood her in good stead throughout her life. She mentions an elder and younger sister. She was captured by Arab slave traders at age six, about a year after her elder sister was captured in a similar manner. Being abducted was so shocking an experience for Bakhita, that she even forgot her name! She remained stunned and numb when the kidnappers asked her for her name. So finally, they named her Bakhita – which means ‘the lucky one.’
Bakhita was sold over and over again across deserts and slave-markets of Sudan. She was led into circumstances that would seem desperate by any standards. “The whip would be upon us without mercy”, she would recount, reliving the horrors of pain and suffering at the hands of blinded merciless men. Yet, her life stands as a shining emblem for all who suffer the treacherous atrocities of abuse and find their lives scarred without repair.
At her canonization, St. Pope John Paul II called her a ‘Universal Sister’ because that is what she made of herself to all around her.
She became as Pope Benedict XVI says, ‘a beacon of hope’ for women in similar situations – women who are beaten under social sins of racism, women who are sold in poverty, women who are tricked in love, women who are cast aside and betrayed in marriage and those whose dignity is violated for pleasure, power and possessions.
Christ on the Cross
Bakhita was fascinated by the crucified Christ. When she was rescued and given a dignified life by Italian Catholics, she recounts being consumed by Christ on the cross. It amazed her that The Master could suffer so excruciatingly, and die for His slave, on behalf of His slave! What baffling love! She called Him ‘The Good Master.’ So great was her delight that she surrendered all her inner shackles and chose to belong to Him completely. That surrender freed her to consider a life beyond the shame and sting of abuse. That Crucifix gave her hope beyond death. That suffering enabled her to find purpose in her own, to see good come out of tragedies like hers and to become a vessel of hope for those who see no light in their long tunnel of suffering. She would often say, “I can see now, that it was by a miracle of God that I did not die: He had destined me for better things.”
How might that inspire us to consider a life beyond our wounds? How might that change in the way we live, to know that God brings good out of every situation?
The Lord Jesus Christ who suffered and died for her, hanging between heaven and earth, bleeding for her life was the source of her healing. Jesus had already washed away the imprints of cruelty and rendered her whole again even before she could receive Him completely.
The revelation of Christ on the Cross changed the lens with which she saw her abusers. When asked what she would do if she ever came across her kidnappers again, she was known to say: “I would kneel and kiss their hands. If what happened to me had never taken place, how could I have become a Christian and a religious?” Looking upon Jesus Crucified, the Son who suffered for her, she was able to forgive even the tattooist and the son of the slave-master who had inflicted much torture upon her.
There is no excuse for abuse. The Church will always stand to defend life. But this we know that while we have to do what it takes to pull away from toxic abusive relationships, we don’t pull away from forgiveness, from surrender and from our healing. The same Cross that transformed Bakhita’s heart, desires to transform ours today. He desires to come even into the most marred, inflicted places of our hearts to make us whole again, because His purpose for our life is inward freedom.
Identity in Christ
The experience of the great love of God clarified Bakhita’s identity and made her aware of her dignity. She resolved to live as His beloved daughter, not defined by her past, her abuse or the years wasted, but by the Father’s immeasurable love for her. This love burned brightly within her to light up the path of those who suffered similarly.
She made a firm choice to remain in Italy and continue her faith formation in the catechumenate rather than return to Africa. Civil and ecclesiastical authorities had to intervene to support her choice when conflict arose to send her away. But Bakhita, remained firm in prayer. The decision finally went in her favor and she was able to reach the great moment of her Baptism.
Through prayer and perseverance Bakhita became aware of another call within her: the call to belong completely to God through the Religious Family of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. She was able to discern her vocation with a free heart, overcome her hesitancy due to her black skin (“I only see white skinned sisters here!”, she had said to her confessor) and join the Congregation with joy. At every juncture, she chose the way of “the Greatest Love”, as Saint Magdalene of Canossa called Jesus Crucified.
Bakhita proved 1 John 4:4 to be true: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for the One who is in you is greater than the One who is in the world.”
The One Within! Saint Bakhita shows us how important it is to be aware of Him, to be attentive to Him, to be obedient to Him and to find our identity in Him.
Therein lies our salvation – when we become aware of His great love poured out sacrificially on our behalf.
Throw off the shackles
Dear sister, to be trafficked, to be abused by strangers is bad enough, but to be abused, deceived and tortured by one’s own relatives and friends is terribly treacherous! How many of us face this staggering reality each day? From domestic violence lurking our homes to depression stemming from betrayals, from abortion to honor killings, the world breathes and breeds seeds of human abuse.
I do not know what your story is. Whether you are haunted by a past gone wrong or living under inhuman conditions that have left you muted, I encourage you to seek help to the extent possible. It is okay to acknowledge that you are being violated and it is important to remember that you are made for more than abuse and dishonor. And on days where hope seems to dwindle, I pray you take recourse to Saint Bakhita. She is heaven sent to remind us that ‘better things’ are indeed available to those who dare to believe, to hope, and to be alert for opportunities to grow from within, to throw off every shackle.
Look out for ‘God sends’ along the way. Respond to them, as Bakhita responded to those who reached out to her. Be attentive to your inner needs, take courage to meet them. Our God is a God who listens and stretches out to save us from the mighty waters that may threaten to drown us. He is indeed The Good Master!
Courage then, arise, The Master is near you. He is mighty to save.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sister Berlinda D’Cruz is a Canossian nun based in Mumbai, India. Having spent over two decades in formation and administration across Africa and India, she is passionate about helping people through education and mentoring, to wade out of oppressive systems in their lives. Sister Berlinda confesses her ordinariness albeit she encases an extraordinary secret: of course I’m in a muddle, but God still finds me delightful!