.- As human trafficking continues to be a supremely important issue during Pope Francis’ pontificate, with an estimated 20 million victims worldwide, St. Josephine Bakhita, enslaved during her own childhood, has emerged as a patron not only for her home country of Sudan, but for all victims of trafficking.
St. Josephine was kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of 7, undergoing immense suffering throughout her adolescence before discovering the faith in her early 20s. She was baptized, and after being freed entered the Canossian Sisters in Italy.
Feb. 8, St. Josephine’s feast day, marks the third international day of prayer and reflection against human trafficking. This year the day focuses on the plight of children, with the theme: “We are children! Not slaves!”
The first year, celebrated in more than 154 countries, was strongly supported by Pope Francis.
If Pope Francis visits the African countries of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in November, as he is rumored to do, the focus of the trip will likely be on the issue of human trafficking, a growing problem the Pope has highlighted over the last four years.
South Sudan and the D.R. Congo have high levels of trafficking, both as a source and destination, due largely to the two countries’ ongoing conflicts and high numbers of internal displacement, creating a prime environment for traffickers to take advantage.
Both countries have received less-than-stellar reviews from the U.S. government based on the seriousness of their trafficking problems and their governments' efforts to curb the practice.
The U.S. government, in cooperation with embassies around the globe, foreign governments, and non-governmental organizations, researches the practice of trafficking worldwide and ranks countries in a tier system.
Tier 1 countries meet the “minimum standards” of fighting trafficking, set forth in a 2000 law, which include prohibition of and sufficient punishment for trafficking. Tier 3 countries, the lowest tier, not only fail to meet the U.S. government’s trafficking standards but are also considered to not be doing enough to prevent trafficking.
According to the U.S. State Department’s latest annual report, released June 30, South Sudan is considered a "Tier 3" country, while the D.R. Congo is considered to be on "Tier 2" or the "Watch List."
Regardless, if the Pope visits, he will likely reference in some way the example of St. Josephine Bakhita, who is highly regarded in South Sudan.
Born in 1869 in a small village in the Darfur region of Sudan, Bakhita was kidnapped by slave traders at the age of 7. So terrified she could not even remember her own name, her kidnappers gave her the name “Bakhita,” which means “fortunate” in Arabic.
This was the last time she saw her natural family, being sold and resold into slavery five different times.
She was tortured by her various owners who branded her, beat and cut her, suffering especially during her adolescent years. Despite not knowing Christ or the redemptive nature of suffering, she bore her pain valiantly.
Bakhita recorded having a certain awe for the world and its creator: “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: ‘Who could be the Master of these beautiful things?’ And I felt a great desire to see Him, to know Him and to pay Him homage,” she wrote.
Eventually she was purchased by the Italian consul Calisto Legnani, who later gave her to a friend of the family, Augusto Michieli, who brought her to Italy as a nanny to his daughter. In the Italian families was the first time she was not mistreated.
While she was with the Michieli family she discovered the Crucified Christ through the gift of a small silver crucifix, given to her by the family’s estate manager. Looking at it, she felt something she could not explain, she would later say.
This was her first introduction to Jesus, whom she called “The Good Master.” In 1888, when she was almost 20 years old, she and the Michieli daughter were sent to be guests at the Institute of the Catechumens run by the Canossian Sisters in Venice. There she began her journey of faith.
Soon after she was baptized, taking the name Josephine Margaret. Desiring to dedicate her life to God, she won a legal battle to remain in Italy (though her master wanted her to return to Africa with him) and entered the Canossians in 1896.
She dedicated the rest of her life to assisting her community and teaching others to love God, and she died on Feb. 8, 1947.
St. Josephine was beatified in 1992 and canonized in 2000 by St. John Paul II. She is the first person to be canonized from Sudan and is the patron saint of the country.