Even in eras and nations where slavery has been practiced, the Church has considered those baptized to be spiritually free. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28).
Thus slavery, both ancient and modern, has not prevented Christians from reaching high positions in the Church, or from being proclaimed saints. For instance, Pope St. Pius I (second century) and Pope St. Callistus (third century) were former slaves, as were the martyrs St. Blandina of Lyons (second century) and St. Felicitas of Carthage (fourth century). All four of these were white. But black slaves have likewise been canonized: St. Benedict the Moor and St. Martin de Porres, for instance.
On May 17, 1992, Pope John Paul II declared “blessed” a black nun who had been enslaved in her native Sudan when a small child. Her experiences as a slave, her conversion to Catholicism, and her saintly life as a nun make a fascinating story.
Born in 1869 in what is now southern Sudan, East Africa, Blessed Josephine (Giuseppina) spent her first six years in her native village. One day, however, when she happened to walk a little outside the village boundaries, she was kidnapped by slave traders.
By 1875, the trade in black slaves had been largely phased out in African law. Egypt, which then exercised political control over the Sudan, had lately signed a treaty declaring slavery illegal. But abuses die hard, and “bootleg” enslavement still continued. To the little six-year-old, the experience of kidnapping was so traumatic that she forgot her own name. The kidnappers therefore gave her the name “Bakhita.” They did not know how well they chose: “Bakhita” is Arabic for “the fortunate one.” While little Miss Bakhita was unfortunate in being made a chattel slave, in the long run she was the recipient of God’s most fatherly attention.
The young bondswoman became the chattel, now of one master, now of another. Most of her owners, it would appear, were Muslims. One of her purchasers, a general in the Turkish army, had her “branded” like his other slaves. The branding was entrusted to a woman expert in the procedure. She inflicted 114 razor cuts on the breasts, arms and abdomen of the 13-year-old. Then she rubbed salt and flour into the wounds so that they healed into a permanent seal of ownership.
Throughout her early life, however, this black pagan girl demonstrated an inborn goodness and gentility that protected her virtue. Although she exemplified the enslaved at their most voiceless, she possessed what could only be called a “naturally Christian” soul. The last couple that owned her made no mistake in appointing her “nanny” to their little daughter. Having moved to Venice, Italy, they enrolled the daughter in a course of religious instruction conducted by the Canossian Sisters, a branch of the Sisters of Charity. Bakhita accompanied the child to each catechism class. At last the pagan slave from Sudan encountered Catholic doctrine and Catholic nuns, and found both deeply impressive.
Then a new crisis occurred in Bakhita’s eventful life. Her master and mistress decided to return to Sudan. What should their nanny do? If she returned with them she knew that her economic condition would always be guaranteed, and she might even be able to rediscover her own family. On the other hand, she was still a catechumen, not yet a Catholic, and deeply desirous of baptism. Furthermore her association with the Canossian Sisters, by now so dear to her, would come to an end. During her period of indecision the question of her legal status as a slave was also raised before an Italian tribunal. Having studied the case carefully, the judge reached the decision that since Sudan had enacted a law forbidding slavery not long before her birth, the young black woman had actually never been a slave.
Bakhita at length made a most Christian decision. She chose to remain in Italy, be baptized a Catholic, and leave all else in the hands of God. The Canossians saw her through the course of studies. In 1890 she was baptized “Giuseppina” (Josephine). Her next step was logical. In 1893 she sought admission into the Canossian Sisters, and in 1896 she took final vows as a member of their community, During the next half century, Sister Bakhita proved herself a model religious, ever humble, ever grateful. Nobody realized better than she that were it not for the incredible trials of her youth she would never have come to know God.
Pope John Paul II beatified Sister Josephine in 1992. Only eight years later, during the Great Jubilee, he canonized her. The space between beatification and canonization was unusually brief.
In declaring her a saint the Pope was doubtless influenced in part by the fact that in the year 2000 Sudan was still a land fraught with conflict and notorious for its disregard of civil rights.
The principal reason for his choice, however, seems to have been to hold up to the world Josephine, “The Fortunate One”, as the recipient of God’s ever-fatherly love. In his canonization homily the Pope cried out for more saints. “Choose them, Lord! You can raise up saints. Take them from all lands … Lord, give us saints!”
–Father Robert F. McNamara