St. Josephine Bakhita

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Today, February 8, is the Memorial of St. Josephine Bakhita. Here is my homily given at the Communion Service today:

Today is the Memorial of St. Josephine Bakhita. St. Josephine was born in the Sudan in 1869, but at the early age of seven, she was captured by Arab slave traders, forcibly converted to Islam, and sold into slavery. Her captors asked her name, but being traumatized, she could not remember. So, they mockingly named her “Bakhita,” Arabic for “fortunate.”

Bakhita was sold to various masters five or six times over the next twelve years, often tortured, beaten, and even branded. Her last owner was an Italian gentleman who brought her to Italy and put her in charge of the care of his daughter at a Venetian boarding school run by the Canossian Sisters. While there, Bakhita became attracted to the Catholic faith and the Canossian community.

Her owner, however, wanted to take her back to Sudan. Bakhita, who was now in formation to become Catholic, refused to return and, with the support of the Archbishop of Venice, went to the courts to fight for her freedom. In 1889, the Italian courts ruled that, since slavery had been outlawed in Sudan prior to Bakhita’s capture and had never been legal in Italy, Bakhita was never legally a slave and could not be held captive. She was awarded her freedom and, in charge of her own fate for the first time in years, chose to live with the Canossian Sisters. Two months later, in January 1890, Bakhita was baptized, taking the names “Josephine Margaret.” She was confirmed by and received her first Holy Communion from Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto, who would later become Pope St. Pius X.

St. Josephine Bakhita lived as a Canossian Sister for 45 years. She passed to eternal glory in 1947. She is the patron saint of Sudan and of human trafficking survivors. She is also a model of suffering and fortitude, but also for those who refuse to passively accept their fate, being willing to fight for her freedom. Like the wise virgins, Bakhita found her Lord and would not be turned away from Him or from entering the wedding feast.

The racism that inspired Bakhita’s capture and enslavement is fundamentally not a social, cultural or political problem. It is a sin problem. Concupiscence, the tendency toward sin to which we remain attached as a result of the Fall, infects our relationships to the point where we are tempted to encounter each other based on things other than the image of God inherent in each of us. Bakhita’s captors and her masters after them did not see her as one made in the image of God, but saw her only as a lesser creature, useful only for profit or service. Even her Italian Catholic owner somehow failed to see the image of God in her. Why? Did her black skin somehow hide her dignity from his eyes? Or was that simply the excuse he used to justify his power over her?

From the perspective of Christian faith, any conversation about race and racism must be predicated on the conviction that each person is made in the image of God. Each individual possesses a dignity given by God that all are bound to respect based, not on race or ethnicity, but on his or her identity as a creation of God gifted with a unique soul who will stand before God in judgment. At the same time, that one who stands before God never stands alone, for each is part of a larger community founded on the common humanity shared by all created in the God’s image.

Finally, as a Christian, each one baptized in Christ stands also as a member of Christ’s Body, a Body the dignity of whose members is predicated, again, not on race or ethnicity, but on union with Christ and the saving action of Christ. As such, for the Christian, race and ethnicity are, or ought to be, incidental. We are not Black, White, Brown, or what have you. We are one in Christ. Anything that threatens our unity in Christ is anti-Christ, and this certainly includes an emphasis on race and ethnicity that demands priority over our union in Christ. Baptized in Christ, we are not White first, or Black first, or Brown first, or what have you. We are His first. If we as members of the Body of Christ cannot or will not look to Christ first, but prefer that other identities take priority, then what answer will we give to the just Judge when we stand before Him, not in our skin, but naked down to our hearts?

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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