In his new encyclical, “Spe Salvi” (Saved by Hope), Pope Benedict draws upon the example two saints—one from Africa and one from Vietnam—to show people how to live in hope.
At the very outset of “Saved by Hope”, the Holy Father holds up St. Josephine Bakhita (bio), a 19th century saint from Sudan, as an example of someone who has “a real encounter with this God for the first time.”
St. Josephine was canonized by Pope John Paul II and born around the year 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. “At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan, he writes.
“Eventually”, Benedict relates, “she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life.”
Her moment of rescue arrived in 1882, when “she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced.”
The Holy Father tells his readers that “[h]ere, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of ‘master’—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name ‘paron’ for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a ‘paron’ above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme ‘Paron’, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited.”
“What is more,” writes the Pope, she saw that “this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her ‘at the Father's right hand’. Now she had ‘hope’ —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.’ Through the knowledge of this hope she was ‘redeemed’, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God.”
“So,” relates Benedict XVI, “when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her ‘Paron’. On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter's lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people.”
“The hope born in her which had ‘redeemed’ her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody,” the Pope concludes.
A Saint in an Everlasting Hell
Towards the end of “Saved by Hope”, the pontiff suggests another modern day saint for reflection, this time from the East. In the context of teaching on the meaning that Christians find in suffering, Pope Benedict relates the story the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) “which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith.”
The martyr Paul’s letter begins, “The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief.”
“But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me,” quotes the Holy Father.
Le-Bao-Tinh’s letter continues: “How am I to bear with the spectacle, as each day I see emperors, mandarins, and their retinue blaspheming your holy name, O Lord, who are enthroned above the Cherubim and Seraphim? (cf. Ps 80:1 [79:2]). Behold, the pagans have trodden your Cross underfoot! Where is your glory?”
Benedict XVI also cites the martyr’s letter to describe the power of hope: “As I see all this, I would, in the ardent love I have for you, prefer to be torn limb from limb and to die as a witness to your love. O Lord, show your power, save me, sustain me, that in my infirmity your power may be shown and may be glorified before the nations ... Beloved brothers, as you hear all these things may you give endless thanks in joy to God… In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart.”
The Holy Father describes this as “a letter from ‘Hell’,” because “it lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors' cruelty.”
From this martyrs’ example, we can see that “Christ descended into ‘Hell’ and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well-nigh unbearable.”
“Yet the star of hope has risen,” Benedict insists, “the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.”