ST. JOSEPHINE BAHKITA
Died February 8, 1947
Canonized October 1, 2000
Today is not the feast of St. Josephine Bahkita, that was Monday, February 8. Still, for a number of reasons, I wanted to write about her. First of all, the readings for today, the Thursday after Ash Wednesday, are BIG SCRIPTURES. First, in Dt. 30:15-20, Moses gives us a choice between “life and death, the blessing and the curse.” And he encourages us to “Choose life.” Then, in Lk. 9:22-25, Jesus tells us “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” I have heard preaching on these passages many times, and I have meditated on them many more times. Try as I might, I don’t think that I can come up with any fresh insights to give you on these readings. But you should read them, and meditate on them and follow them yourselves.
Second, I had never heard about St. Josephine until this week. Maybe you have. Maybe you have read about her in Pope Benedict’s 2007 encyclical on Hope. Not me. I ran into her at Universalis, in the “About Today” section, and then I did my best to find out more about her. Not so easy. The most that I could find was about a four-paragraph biography. I did find out from Wikipedia that there is an Italian movie and even an opera about her life.
Everything I found out about her made it clear that there is almost nothing about her that is like me. She was a woman, I a man. She was black, I am white. She was African. I an American. She spent much of her early life as a household slave. I have always been free. She was often tortured and beaten. Not me.
She was kidnapped in Sudan when she was about eight years and sold into slavery. Her kidnappers named her Bakhita, which is said to be an Arab word for Lucky. Her various masters bought and sold her several times. At some periods she recalled being beaten until she was bleeding at least once a day. She was subjected to painful scar tattooing all over her body. Finally, she was purchased by an Italian and taken to Italy where she was declared free by an Italian court. In Italy she learned about the Catholic faith.
She was a convert. I am a “cradle Catholic.” She was educated poorly, if at all. I have more than seven years of higher education. She lived life as a religious nun for more than 50 years. I lived all my adult life in the world. She was known for her smile, her calmness and gentleness. Me – not so much. In her later, life she was ill, in pain, and confined to a wheelchair without complaining. I am pretty healthy (Praise God!) so we can skip the complaining part. One thing is that she died at about the age that I am right now. When she died, I was in the third grade, and there are not that many canonized saints whose lives overlapped with mine.
Anyway, I seems strange to me that I am drawn to this person so different from me in so many ways. The tie-in to Lent is apparent, at least to me. Lent is about about prayer, fasting and charity. As best as I can tell from the little research I have been able to do on St. Josephine she exemplified all three of those practices in an unique way.
The short biographies all mention a few quotes from the saint, and it may have been those that caught my eye. Once she was asked what she would do if she were to encounter those who kidnapped her into slavery. She replied, “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today”.
If someone would ask her how she was that day she would respond, “as the Master desires”. It is interesting that the word that she used for “Master” was the same word she would use for her slave master. She understood what it meant to obey or disobey a cruel master as a slave. But she also understood what it meant to have a loving Master and to abandon herself to that Master’s will.
As privileged as I am by the accident of my birth, I am always complaining about my misfortune and grousing with God for not giving me more to enjoy in life. Now here is St. Josephine Bakhita coming along at the beginning of Lent to remind me how to accept what my Master gives me, good and bad, with a smile and charity to others. Maybe I should just give up complaining for Lent. Nah, that would not do any good. Would it?