Apostle of Gratitude: Saint Josephine Bakhita

Oct 12, 2023 / Written by: Tonia Long

Feast February 8

GRATITUDE! Such an easy virtue to practice when things are going well. “Thank you, God, for good health and providing what I need to keep a roof over my head and food in the refrigerator.” But what about those times in our lives that are especially challenging? The loss of a loved one or repeated calls from bill collectors can distract us from the necessity of practicing gratitude in trying times as well.

And that is when we can turn to Saint Josephine Bakhita, the Apostle of Gratitude.

A Sudanese woman who endured a tragic story of slavery and abuse, Bakhita (1869 – 1947) had a gift for understanding that all things – even the most horrific – were ultimately put into her life to bring her to God. It was this wisdom that gave her the courage to say: “If I met the slave traders who kidnapped and tortured me, I would kneel down and kiss their hands.”

Map of Sudan
Map of Sudan showing the Region of Darfur on the left. Courtsey of Sudan National Museum - Wikimedia Commons

Until the age of nine, she lived happily with her family, mother, father, brothers, and a sister, in the African village of Olgrossa in the Darfur region of Sudan. Her uncle was a tribal chief, and her family was relatively prosperous. Hers was a carefree existence, surrounded by the wonders of nature. In this blessed childhood, she felt God in her heart without knowing who He was. “I remembered that looking at the sun, the moon, the stars, the beauty of nature, I said to myself: ‘Who is the master of all these beautiful things?’ And I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to give him homage.”

But all of that was shattered in an instant when she was abducted by Arab slave traders. The trauma of the abduction caused her to forget her own name. Bakhita was held captive for one month in a dark and cramped hut and then sold five times in the slave markets, heavily chained and forced to work relentlessly to satisfy the whims of her “masters.” Eventually, she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general. As she herself wrote: “During all the years I stayed in that house, I do not recall a day that passed without some wound or other. When one wound from the whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me, without me knowing why. How many of my companions in misfortune were beaten to death!”

Photo attribution: Ventura69 Dreamstime.com

On one particularly traumatic day, she remembers being “tattooed” with a razor blade, creating 114 cuts, after which her wounds were filled with salt to ensure permanent scarring. “At any moment I thought I was going to die … immersed in a lake of blood, they took me to a mat, and for hours I knew nothing of myself … for more than one month [lying] on the mat, … without even a cloth to dry the water that came from the wounds half-closed because of the salt. It was by a miracle of God I didn’t die. He had destined me for better things.”

Treatment such as she endured would have made a lesser person bitter, hostile and vindictive. But not our Apostle of Gratitude! Years later, when speaking of her torturers, Josephine Bakhita would say, “…poor people, they didn’t know how much they hurt me: they were the masters, I was the slave. Just as we are used to doing good things, similarly, those slavers did such things because it was their habit, not for wickedness!” And, “…I would kneel down and kiss their hands because, if it had never happened, I would not be Christian and a consecrated woman.”

The "Supreme Paron" – Master of Mercy

Saint Josephine Bakhita
Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons

At the time appointed by God, her sufferings came to an end. After ten years of slavery in Africa, Bakhita was led to Italy by an Italian consul who treated her kindly and “gave” her to a Venetian couple with one daughter, Alice. While both Bakhita and Alice were left in the care of the Canossian sisters in Venice, Bakhita was instructed in the Catholic Faith. She learned many things from the sisters and was eventually baptized with the name “Josephine Margaret.”

Pope Benedict XVI describes the miracle that took place in the depths of Bakhita with these words: “Here, after the terrifying ‘masters’ who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of Master’— in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name ‘paron’ for the living God, … a ‘paron’ above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, He is goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that He had created her —that He actually loved her. She, too, was loved and by none other than the supreme ‘Paron.’ What is more, this Master had Himself accepted the destiny of being flogged, and now He was waiting for her at the Father’s right hand.”

For the first time in her life, Bakhita found herself in control of her own destiny, and she felt called to consecrate her life as a Canossian sister. For 45 years, she served the community, conquering everybody’s hearts with her gentleness and hospitality while carrying out humble tasks. On the insistence of her sisters, she dictated the memories of her past. For several years, she embarked on missionary journeys that cost her a lot of effort as she gave her witness throughout Italy, leaving a trail of goodness in her wake.

Room where Saint Josephine Bakhita lived and died
Room where Saint Josephine Bakhita lived and died in Schio, now part of the museum dedicated to the saint. Photo by Xavier Hemmer – Wikimedia commons.

Saint Josephine Bakhita is a true apostle of gratitude since she was able to see in the events of her life, even the most painful ones, the path that the Lord had prepared for her so that she could meet Him. She never once regretted the suffering of all those dark years, knowing this was the path that led her to the encounter with Christ. Had she remained in her African village, she probably wouldn’t have met Him.

St. Josephine was beatified in 1992 and canonized shortly after in October 2000 by Pope John Paul II. She is the first person to be canonized from Sudan and is the patron saint of the country.

“All my life has been His gift for me: men are tools; thanks to them, I have received the gift of the faith. If I would stay kneeling down all my life, I will never express enough my gratitude towards the good Lord.” —Saint Josephine Bakhita

Header image attribution: IMBISA - The Catholic Church throughout Africa: https://imbisa.africa/