A Theologian of Humility
For some time Josephine Bakhita was searching for me on the path we were walking together. That path of slavery which still exists in Africa and has so many open and forgotten wounds. Africa is a continent that is changing rapidly and that has so much to offer. At last our paths crossed. I was asked to speak about Bakhita – who died on 8 February 1947 in Schio, Italy – which brought me closer to her, enabling me to discover her presence in my life, without me knowing it. Her story was to be both prophetic and relevant today. It is a story about the thousands upon thousands of slaves of our times, and also of the victims of human trafficking, practiced today by organized crime for the trade in prostitution. Each year millions of women are taken away by deception and false illusions only to be reduced to a condition of slavery.
Bakhita, besides being “fortunate” (according to the meaning of her name), was also predestined. This becomes clear in the pages of the small but profound Diary that she dictated in 1910 to one of the sisters “at the wish of the Reverend Mother Superior” of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. Bakhita entered this congregation – founded by Magdalene of Canossa – on 7 December 1873.
Born in 1869 in the village of Olgossa in Darfur, Sudan, she was eight years old when she was kidnapped. Sold and resold in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum, she was first bought by a wealthy Arab and then by a Turkish general. Daily lashes often reduced her tender body to a single sore, painful tattoos brought her close to death, her breasts were tortured with cruel and wanton violence. Yet in her story, dictated to the “brunette nun”, there is not even the hint of a wish for revenge nor even hatred for the martyrdom that she endured. What emerges from her story is a supernatural kind of strength, which gave her the courage never to give up.
Bakhita, during the first part of her life, did not know who God was, but was miraculously saved several times. The Lord allowed her to meet Callisto Legnani, the Italian consul, resident in Khartoum, to whom she was sold and by whom she was taken to Italy, where she was assigned to the family of a wealthy merchant who lived in Mirano, in the province of Venice. From that moment on, she began to travel the bright path that allowed her to meet Christ, “el vero Paron”, as she called him in the Venetian dialect.
Illuminato Cecchini, a man of great faith and a defender of the poor, one day gave her a small silver crucifix, explaining that on it was Jesus, the Son of God, who died for her. Awestruck, Bakhita wrote in her diary: “I remembered that, seeing the sun, the stars, the beauty of nature, I said to myself: ‘Who could the Master of these beautiful things be?’”. And I felt a great desire to see him, to know him, to pay homage to him. And now I know. Thank you, thank you, my God.”
He was a “Paron” so unlike any she had known before. He didn’t just love her, he laid down his life to save her. She welcomed this revelation without any misgiving or doubt. It completely filled her being and transformed her into a creature of light and love, always open to others: kind, discrete and affectionately sympathetic, ready to help anyone who turned to her. Her life became a permanent conversation with the “Paron”, and when her last mistress wished to bring her back to Khartoum, she courageously refused to follow her. She, who had always obeyed without raising an eyebrow, who never complained even when they beat her, now carried out the grand and decisive act of rebellion in her life. She fought for her decision and was finally allowed to stay near the Canossian Congregation in Venice, where she wanted to devote herself to this God she had known only a short time though he had always been beside her.
Fr Divo Barsotti wrote: “Bakhita is proof that Christianity can transform slaves, that is, people who have lost the sense of who they are, into persons of strength, capable of unexpected power. It is the certainty that through Christ man can pass from a state of exclusion to one of eternal dignity, greatness and freedom. This is true not only for Africa but for the whole world. The action of human promotion by Christianity through the likes of Bakhita is enormous though it is often not detected. A crucial role especially for the promotion and dignity of women. No one has done more for women than Christianity and Bakhita is a witness of this”.
Bakhita’s road to holiness is a path open to everyone. It interweaves itself with the most hidden aspects of daily life, tactful, stripped of privileges and any kind of power and possession, full of small concrete actions, of freely given commitment to the other. Strewed along this journey there are so many miracles that she performed while alive and from heaven. But the greatest miracle is the silent, hidden fidelity, the total self-abandonment, the human and spiritual greatness reached by this unknown “theologian of humility” who, with empty hands, was able to transform suffering into a song of love and of joy. A song of hope.
© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2014
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