As slavery continues, cardinal highlights St Josephine Bakhita

Josephine Bakhita Credit ACurrell via Flickr CC BY NC 20 CNA Josephine Bakhita. | A.Currell via Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

An English cardinal this week reflected on the life of St. Josephine Bakhita- who endured brutal slavery before entering religious life- and urged prayers and recognition for the many people worldwide who are enslaved.

In particular, he said, the poverty and uncertainty wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have intensified the conditions in which slavery and human trafficking thrives.

"The organised criminal networks, which profit ruthlessly through the sale of our brothers and sisters as slaves and no more than commodities to be exploited, are taking full advantage of this chaos: over 40 million trapped today in modern slavery. It is pitiable: a terrible wound in the flesh of humanity, indeed in the body of Christ," Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster preached at a Mass on Feb. 8, St. Bakhita's feast day.

"Yet today we come to proclaim Jesus as our Saviour, the one who conquers evil and who restores a broken creation. The Gospel tells us this truth in vivid and unforgettable terms."

Human trafficking is estimated to be a $150 billion industry that profits off of 25 million victims worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization.

Despite the goodness of God's creation, Nichols said, we still live in a time of "distress, poverty, isolation, anxiety." Nichols is president of the Santa Marta Group, an alliance of international police chiefs and bishops that aims to eradicate human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

Josephine Bakhita is the patron saint of human trafficking survivors.

She was born to a pagan family in 1869, in a small village in the Darfur region of Sudan. At age seven, she was kidnapped while working in the fields with her family and subsequently sold into slavery.

Bakhita's slave masters treated her brutally, at one point wounding her over 100 times and pouring salt in the wounds to create permanent scars.

Bakhita eventually was brought to Italy, where slavery was not recognized and the courts ruled her a free women. She remained in Italy and decided to enter the Canossians religious order in 1893. She made her profession in 1896 and was sent to northern Italy, where she dedicated her life to assisting her community and teaching others to love God.

Toward the end of her life, Nichols said, Bakhita was asked: 'What would you do if you met those who enslaved you and inflicted those scars on your body?' She apparently replied: 'I would kneel before them and kiss their hands because through their actions I have come to know Christ Jesus and he is my life!'

"She teaches us again the beauty of having met Jesus and of coming to know him. She teaches us again the richness and joy of living with Jesus and the richness of joy of belonging to the Church. In her slavery she came to this gift," Nichols said, noting that it is a blessing that church buildings are now open for people to seek a peaceful place in the company of Jesus.

St. John Paul II beatified Bakhita in 1992 and canonized her in October 2000. She is the first person to be canonized from Sudan, and is the patron saint of the country.

"Today we pray for every single person trapped in enforced labour and slavery, here in our country, in every country. Today we thank all who work so hard to free and serve them, among whom are so many religious women, in this diocese and around the world, and their supporters," Nichols concluded.

"Today we speak out for all those trapped in slavery and in the processes of recovery; for a greater responsiveness by our Government through its national referral mechanism and refugee appeal systems, in clear need of renewal and resources; for renewed endeavour by police forces to trace, halt and prosecute traffickers."

The pope has dedicated the month of February to prayer for women who are victims of violence, including victims of human trafficking.

In a video message published Feb. 8, Pope Francis asked people to pray for every person who is currently a victim of human trafficking. Francis instituted the annual day of prayer in 2015 to take place on St. Bakhita's feast day.

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"Dear brothers and sisters, let us put all this in our prayer, especially today, through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita. … Let us all pray together for every person who is a victim of  human trafficking at this moment," he said.

In 2019, the Vatican released an online guide seeking to combat the "ugly business" of human trafficking.

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