St. Paul exhorted Christians to “aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). St. Josephine Bakhita, an African saint whose feast day the Catholic Church celebrates February 8, is perhaps a perfect example of this quiet living.
Few people, apart from a subset of practicing Catholics, have heard of her. This is a shame. Although lacking the intellectual creds of an Augustine or Aquinas, or the tangible impact of a Mother Theresa or Pope John Paul II, Bakhita’s story is a remarkable one worthy of far wider recognition. Indeed, her life speaks uncomfortable truths to several popular ideas held by Americans.
A Happy Childhood Wrecked By Muslim Slave Traders
Josephine Bakhita was born around 1869 in Darfur, Sudan, to respected and relatively wealthy parents. She later noted: “I lived a very happy and carefree life, without knowing what suffering (was).” But around the age of eight (around 1877), Arab slave traders abducted her, dragged her 600 miles, and sold her. She was forcibly converted to Islam, and her name changed to Bakhita, meaning “lucky” or “fortunate.”
Various owners (she was sold multiple times) treated her poorly: she was lashed, kicked, whipped, and beaten. Her owners scarred her with 114 intricate patterns cut into her breasts, belly, and right arm. In 1883, the Italian vice consul in Sudan, Callisto Legnani, purchased her and eventually took her to Italy, where she was sold yet again and made a nanny.
In 1888, she was left in the care of a Catholic religious order, the Canossian Sisters, in Venice. These sisters provided for and catechized Bakhita in the Christian faith. She later said, “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.”
When her owner later returned and demanded her back, Bakhita refused. The Italian mistress appealed to the king’s attorney general. In 1889, an Italian court ruled that Bakhita’s slavery was invalid and must be free. Bakhita promptly chose to remain with the Canossians, and in 1890 she was baptized Josephine Margaret. She was then confirmed by Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto, the cardinal patriarch of Venice, and future Pope Pius X. Quite a remarkable transition!
A Life of Humble, Radical Service
Bakhita spent the remainder of her life at the Canossian convent at Schio, in northern Italy, though she traveled elsewhere in Italy to tell her story and help other nuns prepare for missionary work in Africa. It was said of her that “her mind was always on God, and her heart in Africa.”
She took relatively menial jobs, including as cook, sacristan and portress (door keeper). She was famous for her gentleness, her calming voice, and her smiling visage. Her charisma and reputation for sanctity became famous across Italy, particularly after the publication of her life’s story in 1931. During World War II, townspeople considered her a living saint and believed her presence offered a miraculous protecting power. Indeed, although bombs were dropped on Schio, the town didn’t suffer a single casualty during the war.
In her later years she suffered many illnesses, but she remained always cheerful and focused on God. Once a young student once asked Bakhita what she would do if she ever were to meet any of her former captors. 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.”
In her last hours, she seemed driven back to her time in slavery, crying out: “The chains are too tight, loosen them a little, please!” Her last audible words were, “Yes, I am so happy: Our Lady … Our Lady!” For three days afterwards, her body was placed on display. Thousands of people came to pay their respects.
Lessons On Islam, Slavery, and Outrage
Several elements of Bakhita’s life are pertinent to our American moment. First, there is the violent, oppressive role of radical Islam. Bakhita was enslaved, forcibly converted, and brutally assaulted by adherents of the Muslim faith. Of course, it would be unfair and irrational to draw broad conclusions about Islam from this one anecdote — indeed, there is plenty of history of Christians forcibly converting and brutally assaulting people.
But the fact remains that parts of the Muslim world remain uniquely oppressive. If one considers at a map of the world where apostasy laws are in effect, it largely matches where Islam is the dominant religion. As scholar David Pinault has noted in “The Crucifix on Mecca’s Front Porch: A Christian’s Companion for the Study of Islam,” Muhammad promoted terrible acts of violence. Yet Muhammad’s life is viewed as the pinnacle exemplar of the Muslim life. This, quite frankly, is terrifying.
Moreover, slavery was a dominant aspect of the Muslim world for most of its history. Many Muslim clerics still consider it a justified practice, and it can still be found in several Muslim nations. In recent memory, the Islamic State widely practiced sexual slavery. Again, Christianity certainly has a shameful heritage of practicing and endorsing slavery. Yet the Christian faith also possesses within it the potency to preach against it, as Christian historian Mark Noll argued in his “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.”
Indeed, it was Christians in places like the United States and the United Kingdom, motivated by religious beliefs regarding the equality and dignity of man, who worked to abolish the slave trade, and destroy the institution of slavery. In our day, when slavery often takes the form of human trafficking, Bakhita thus serves as an important witness — she is actually the patron saint of human trafficking survivors!
Finally, Bakhita’s legacy speaks loudly against those who live in indignation, protest, and entitlement. At a time when many people––whether they are social justice warriors on the left, or trolls and incels on the right––are perpetually on the prowl for some new outrage, Bakhita offers a different way of understanding offense and suffering. The Sudanese saint did not demand her tormentors be forced to suffer the same indecencies she was exposed to. She refused to feed off a yearning for revenge, nor did she consider herself entitled to special privileges because she lived through such atrocities.
Rather, she chose humility, forgiveness, and ultimately, love. In that love, she promoted a means of reconciling all of disparate humanity, from Arab slavers, to wealthy Italian slave owners, to oppressed racial minorities. We would do well to honor her memory by following her example.