On Feb. 8, we celebrate the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of trafficked survivors. It is also the International Day of Prayer and Awareness of Human Trafficking. Talitha Kum International offers an online pilgrimage of prayer called Journeying in Dignity for survivors of trafficking. Through the intercession of St. Josephine, let us pray for all those who are currently caught in the scourge of human trafficking, especially those women and children escaping the violence in Ukraine.
St. Josephine is indeed a saint for our times. Many of the traumatic experiences she endured are similar to the painful reality of today’s prostituted/trafficked persons. Her journey can be described as a series of transitions from Africa to Italy, from torture to liberation, from Muslimism to Catholicism, from Bakhita to Josephine. Although she was born over 100 years ago, aspects of her enslavement continue to happen in our world of 2023. Yes, even in all parts of Canada.
Due to the horrific torture inflicted on her at an incredibly early age, Josephine could not remember her family name. Her traffickers called her Bakhita: “the fortunate one.” Later in her life she was baptized and received the name Josephine. My preference is to call her St. Josephine – reflecting her choice and the life-giving transformation that happened in the second half of her life.
As a child, St. Josephine lived a normal happy life in a prosperous family of six children in the district of Darfur in Sudan, Central Africa. At age nine, she was kidnapped by Arabs, sold many times by her captors and moved from place to place, not knowing what was happening to her, nor where she was.
Today, young girls in particular are lured into sexual exploitation at a young age without any understanding of what is happening to them. Many are forced nightly to give sexual services to numerous unknown strangers and are frequently moved from city to city, not knowing where they are or how to escape. Some of these youth are homeless but some come from families like St. Josephine’s. Online platforms are the current avenue for kidnapping innocent young people today, with digital luring exploding during and after COVID.
Frequently, St. Josephine experienced extreme forms of violence. She stated that the most horrific pain was a process called scarification in which over a hundred wounds were carved into her body. For many prostituted or trafficked persons today, the perpetrators insist on branding or tattooing their names and symbols on the person to show their power over them, thus violating their equality and dignity as a human person.
If you wish to learn more about Human Trafficking in Canada, read the Canadian Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter called, For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free.
Life changed for St. Josephine in 1883 when she was bought by an Italian diplomat and sent to Italy to work as a maid for a wealthy family. While there, she was fortunate to accompany one child to school each day. At the school, she learned about Catholicism and was introduced to a religious congregation, the Canossian Daughters of Charity.
After a winning her court case to stay in Italy, St. Josephine gained her freedom. In 1890, she chose to receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. Shortly afterward, she made her profession as a religious woman and for the next 50 years dedicated her life to the service of others.
She died in 1947 after a period of struggle with memories of her childhood sufferings, not unlike the constant flashbacks that survivors often deal with throughout their lives.
What an amazing story of transformation from a very painful youth to the Spirit of God acting in her life — a wonderful transition from torture to service — indeed an example of courage, resiliency, and dedication.
If you wish to learn more about St. Josephine or human trafficking, go to the study guide prepared to accompany the bishops’ pastoral letter.
To register for a Feb. 8 webinar on human trafficking, go to bccatholic.ca/freedomwebinar.
(Verbatim is a weekly feature of The Catholic Register. Texts are edited only for style consistency and length.)