Lights of the World is TLC‘s occasional series of vignettes about saints who were newly added to Lesser Feasts & Fasts 2018.
By Emily J. Garcia
Mother Josephine Bakhita was called holy and a saint in her lifetime. Now, this Sudanese Italian woman is known and beloved throughout the Catholic world. The summary of her life is readily found — born in the village Olgossa in Sudan, kidnapped and sold into slavery at age nine, called Bakhita (the Arabic for “lucky”) by her captors, and unable later to remember her given name, or indeed the language she spoke with her family. Sold and bought by multiple households, she was beaten and scarred. While enslaved by the Italian consul there, she persuaded him to take her along to Italy. When they arrived in Genoa in 1885, Bakhita said, “[t]he wife of the consul’s friend … saw us blacks and wanted one. … The consul, to please his friend and his wife, gave me to them as a gift.” This wife was Maria Michieli.
(This and the other quotes from Bakhita are taken from the 1910 document she dictated, itself quoted in Bakhita: From Slave to Saint, written by Roberto Italo Zanini and translated by Andrew Matt, Ignatius Press, San Francisco: 2013.)
Everything changed one summer when Bakhita was left in the care of the Canossian sisters at the Institute of Catechumens in Venice. There, Sister Maria Fabretti “wanted to know if I desired to become a Christian, and sensing that I did … those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who he was.”
Afterward, Maria Michieli arrived to lay claim to her; Bakhita insisted on staying to be baptized. The conflict was taken from the superior to the patriarch of Venice and the king’s attorney general. Bakhita was declared a free woman; Michieli left “weeping with rage and sorrow.” Two months later, Bakhita was baptized and confirmed; she took holy vows six years later.
Many summaries of Bakhita’s life end at this point, noting the virtues of gentleness and forgiveness. But Bakhita’s story continues for another 50 years of forbearance, generosity, and strength. In the Canossian house in Schio, near Venice, she was sacristan, cook, and doorkeeper; during the First World War she chose to stay as the city was bombed, and helped care for the wounded. Inside and outside the convent she experienced ignorance, vulgar curiosity, and racism both nuanced and blunt. She met this not just with forbearance but with witty ripostes and sharp humor, so that those with ears could hear.
In 1931, a version of Bakhita’s story called Storia de meravigliosa was published and became popular; Bakhita was sent to the sister houses around Italy, to be presented, as another nun told her story. When a sister found Bakhita distressed and asked if she was ill, Bakhita responded, “No physical suffering, no, but everyone looks at me like a nice beast. … And they also say, ‘Poor little thing, poor little thing.’ But I am not a poor little thing, because I belong to the Paròn and I am in his house. Anyone who is not with the Lord, they are the poor ones.” (“Parón” is the Venetian dialect word for “Master.”)
When she lay dying, “a nun who had been visiting with her in her room, … thinking these words would console her in the midst of her suffering, remarked: ‘Mother Josephine, I leave you now on your Calvary.’ Bakhita replied: ‘Not on Calvary — I am on Tabor.’ The nun, perhaps imagining that Bakhita had not understood the scriptural reference, explained: ‘We will go to Tabor after; now in our suffering we are on Calvary.’ Her reply was the same: ‘No, no, I am on Tabor.’”
Bakhita’s words ask us to consider how we tell her story. Who is the hero, and where is the victory located? For whom is she recommended as a role model, and with what virtues? And how can we avoid these harmful mistakes: to say “poor little thing” and to see only Crucifixion instead of Transfiguration?
We should also remember that when we name the suffering of the saints and the patience with which they carried it, there are different kinds of suffering — the suffering of the stigmata is different than the suffering of racialized violence. One we might ask for to come closer to Christ; the other we fight against until it exists no longer.
One of Bakhita’s favorite stories to tell children was of Joseph sold into slavery and raised up by the Lord. As we leave room for all that we do not know of her life with God, with Joseph and Bakhita we can proclaim that God has brought good out of evil: “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”
The Rev. Emily J. Garcia is assistant rector of Our Redeemer, Lexington, Mass.