In April 1994, Pope John Paul II gave to Zaire, the African republic, a notable saint of its own: Blessed Isidore Bakanja, a modern black martyr.
Zaire used to be called Belgian Congo in its colonial days. Somehow Isidore Bakanja, a young Congolese, fell under the happy influence of some Belgian Trappist missionaries, and received baptism when he was about 18. At that time he was working for some white colonizers as an assistant mason.
A mild person, respectful and industrious, Isidore became a devout Catholic. On the recommendation of his Trappist teachers he always carried his rosary and wore a scapular. (“Mary’s habit” it was called in Congolese.) They were tokens of his Catholic identity. Although not officially a catechist, he did try to share with his non-Catholic companions the inspiring teachings of his new-found faith.
Since Isidore was lonely as the only Catholic in his village, he yearned to live in a more Christian region. He therefore left his village for a larger settlement. There he obtained a job with the white agent of a Belgian company that operated the local rubber plantations.
Now, many of the agents of these Belgian companies were atheists and oppressive of the Congolese natives. They hated Catholic missionaries because they taught a religion of equality and defended the rights of the blacks.
Isidore soon felt the effects of this form of colonial pressure. When he asked permission to return home, he was refused. Furthermore, he was ordered to stop teaching his fellow workers how to pray. As one agent said, “You’ll have the whole village praying and no one will want to work!” The agent told him to throw away his scapular. When Isidore refused to do so, he had him flogged, twice.
The second time was the worse: the agent, in a fury, tore off the young man’s scapular and ordered him to be held down and whipped. The whip used was made of elephant hide armed at the end with nails. “My God, I’m dying,” cried Isidore under the brutal assault; but the whipping continued and the colonizer kept kicking the young man in neck and head. Isidore was given over 100 blows. The flail cut through his back to the very bone and left it one open wound. His legs were then chained together and he was thrown into a hut.
An inspector was due to visit the plantation, so the agents, fearing how he would judge their actions, sent Isidore to another village. Because of the victim’s inability to walk, however, he didn’t reach the village. When the inspector appeared, he did drag himself up to him.
The inspector was shocked. As he later wrote, “I saw a man come from the forest with his back torn apart by deep, festering, malodorous wounds, covered with filth, assaulted by flies.” The villainous agent turned up just then and tried to kill Isidore on the spot, but the inspector prevented it.
Now the inspector took the poor youth to his own settlement. He hoped that he would recover there, but Isidore was already past recovery. “If you see my mother,” he said to one friendly villager, “or if you go to the judge, or if you meet the priest, tell them that I am dying because I am a Christian.”
Fortunately, two missionaries came to give him spiritual comfort. The victim explained what had happened: “The white man did not like Christians … He did not want me to wear the scapular… He yelled at me when I said my prayers.” Forgive this man, the missionaries urged him. Isidore answered that he had already done so, and held no grudge against him: “Certainly I shall pray for him. When I am in heaven, I shall pray for him very much.” So he received the last sacraments most devoutly.
But it was not yet over. His agony lasted six more months. He died on August 8 or 15, 1909, the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel around his neck and the rosary grasped in his hand.
At the rite of beatification, Pope John Paul II praised Blessed Isidore’s steadfast loyalty to his baptismal faith. The pope saw his Christ-like death as a lesson in reconciliation, particularly in an Africa torn asunder by hostilities.
America, too, rent as it is with racial and ethnic conflicts, can profit by the lesson taught by this holy black peacemaker.
–Father Robert F. McNamara