EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD FROM EXPERIENCE: SANCTITY
The great majority of people over the many millennia of the human community have held for the existence of a Supreme Being. Many people, as well, have encountered God by way of a variety of religious experiences, mostly personal, though some involving groups or even multitudes. These encounters with the divine have inspired and strengthened many to transform their life from one of ill-repute and infidelity to one of great devotion, faithfulness, and service to others. Delving still deeper into the human experience of God, some people have reached levels of genuine sanctity so that their relationship with God is both intensely personal and impactful for others, both believers and non-believers.
Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris during the Nazi occupation, once said, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring things up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” Those of genuine sanctity are living mysteries. The examples of such sanctity abound in the canon of blesseds and saints.
In 1872, Alfred Bessette was accepted into the novitiate for the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Montreal, Canada. He was given the religious name Brother Andre. After taking his final vows in 1874, he was assigned to the duties of porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. In his duties, he would receive many at the door of the college who were ill. Brother Andre would listen to their stories of suffering and pray for those who came to him during the day, often weeping with them. At night, he would visit those whose illnesses prevented their coming to him. He had a strong devotion to St. Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus. When he visited the sick in their homes, Brother Andre would rub oil from the college chapel lamp on them and promise to pray for them to St. Joseph. People began experiencing healings and attributed them to Brother Andre’s prayers, while the good Brother himself refused all credit for any healings, insisting that they were the work of St. Joseph. He told his devoted followers, “I do not cure. St. Joseph cures.”
People began to come to Notre Dame College in hopes that Brother Andre’s prayers would restore their health, and he received tens of thousands of letters each year requesting his prayers for recovery. Soon, the crowds overwhelmed the community, and Brother Andre was instructed to receive the infirm at a trolley station across the street from the college. Eventually, the crowds grew too large even for this, and a chapel was built. Brother Andre became known as “the Miracle Man of Montreal.” His genuine humility, however, kept him grounded in sanctity. “I am nothing,” he said, “Only a tool in the hands of Providence, a lowly instrument at the service of St. Joseph.” Brother Andre died in 1937. Over a million mourners filed past his remains to honor the saintly porter. Brother Andre Bessette was beatified by Pope St. John Paul the Great in 1982 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
Josephine Bakhita was born in 1868 in Darfur, Sudan, the daughter of a prosperous Sudanese villager and the niece of the village chief. Around 1877, she was captured by Arab slavers, forced to convert to Islam, and sold into slavery. For the next six years she suffered the horrors of slavery, as she was sold from one cruel master to another. So terrible were her tortures, she forgot the name of her birth and adopted the name the slavers gave her: “Bakhita,” which means “lucky.”
In 1883, she was sold in Khartoum to an Italian consul, Callisto Legnani. Legnani was a kind man and treated Bakhita well, though she was still a slave. When he returned to Italy, Legnani took Bakhita with him, eventually giving her as a present to the Michieli family. Bakhita became the nanny for the Michieli’s daughter, Mimmina. When Signora Michieli’s presence was required to help her husband in the running of their family hotel in Egypt, Bakhita and Mimmina were left in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. There, Bakhita learned about God, Whom she had known in her heart since she was a child, but about Whom she had not been taught. “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 for him, to know him and to pay him homage.” In 1890, Bakhita was baptized, confirmed and received her first Holy Communion by Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto of Venice, the future Pope St. Pius X. She was given the name “Josephine.”
In time, Signora Michieli returned for Mimmina and Bakhita. Bakhita, however, refused to leave, desiring to stay with the Canossian Sisters to serve God. Italian law favored her freedom, and she was no longer a slave. In 1896, she was consecrated as a member of the Daughters of Charity of the Institute of St. Magdalene of Canossa and assigned to the community in Schio in Vicenza, where she spent the rest of her life serving as cook, seamstress and portress.
Her humility and constant smile endeared her to her fellow sisters, and to the Italian people, who came to recognize and revere her sanctity. She served the poor and sick who came to her door, and encouraged all to a life of prayer, especially for those who do not know God. The Canossian Sisters published her life story, and she became famous throughout Italy. During World War II, the villagers, who regarded her a saint, took comfort in her, convinced that her mere presence provided protection. While Schio endured bombings, amazingly, not a single casualty was suffered among the town folk.
In her last years, Mother Josephine Bakhita braved her own painful illnesses, never losing her cheer, and continuing to witness to the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. When asked how she was, she would smile and say, “As the Master desires.” During her last tortured hours, her mind went back to her days of slavery, and she cried out, “The chains are too tight, loosen them a little, please!” After recovering, she was asked, “How are you?” Informed that the day was Saturday, a day traditionally set aside by Catholics to honor the Blessed Mother, she replied, “Yes, I am so happy. Our Lady! Our Lady!” These were her last words. She died on February 8, 1947.
It was not great miracles, visions or the wisdom of the sage that touched so many who encountered Mother Josephine Bakhita. It was, rather, the daily humility, sweetness and sanctity of one dedicated entirely to the Lord in service to His people. This is what convinced many that this woman from a far African country was a saint among them. When she passed away, thousands passed by to pay their respects to the one they called “Mother Moretta” (Black Mother). Mother Josephine Bakhita was beatified in 1992, and canonized in 2000, both by Pope St. John Paul the Great.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.