Saint Josephine Bakhita, Witness of Hope for Victims of Human Trafficking

A tapestry portrait of St. Josephine Bakhita hanging from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica during her canonization at the Vatican on October 1, 2000. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Blessed John Paul II canonized Saint Josephine Bakhita in the Great Jubilee Year 2000. Her journey to sainthood was a remarkable one.  A former Sudanese slave, she endured beatings and brandings, but eventually she found freedom from enslavement.  Upon her baptism into the Catholic Church, Bakhita took the name Josephine and later she became a member of the Daughters of Charity of Canossa in Italy.  Known for her sanctity and common sense wisdom during her 50 years as a religious sister, Saint Josephine Bakhita died in 1947.

At Bakhita’s canonization, Blessed John Paul II called the first saint from Sudan “a shining advocate of genuine emancipation” for women victimized in today’s world. “The history of her life inspires not passive acceptance, but the firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence and to return them to their dignity in the full exercise of their rights,” the pope said.

Some have promoted Bakhita as a possible patron saint for the victims of human trafficking, the modern-day form of slavery that includes forced labor and many women and children of both sexes being forced into prostitution. The feast day of Saint Josephine Bakhita, February 8, has been designated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a day of prayer to raise awareness of, and to help end, the scourge of human trafficking.

Throughout his first year as pontiff, Pope Francis has decried the evil of human trafficking, showing great concern in both his Easter and his Christmas messages to the world.  On December 12, 2013, he called human trafficking “a crime against humanity,” saying that we “must not allow these women, men and children to be treated as objects, to be deceived, raped, often sold and resold for various purposes, and in the end either killed or left devastated in mind and body, only to be finally thrown away or abandoned. It is shameful.”

The severity of human trafficking cannot be underestimated.  It is estimated that there are as many as 27 million trafficking victims at any given time worldwide. A recent article in the Catholic News Service notes that experts estimate that five million of these trafficked and enslaved people are children.  The evil is unfolding not only in foreign countries.  A 2013 report from the U.S. State Department confirms that the “United States is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children – both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals – subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking.”

Our Catholic teachings on social justice, human rights and the God-given dignity of all human life offer a moral and philosophical foundation for confronting the modern evil of human trafficking.  In a world where too many people, especially the young, are treated like objects, even as merchandise to be used and discarded, our faith offers a beacon of hope, based on our belief that all people in our one human family are children of God and are our brothers and sisters.  Beyond being a voice of conscience, agencies like Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network are also working to bring material help, hope and healing to the victims of human trafficking.

In the face of this daunting evil, Bakhita does indeed offer a shining example of true freedom. In his 2007 encyclical on Christian hope, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted her, noting that as a slave she endured daily floggings that caused her to bleed – she bore 144 scars from her suffering – but she found hope in the living God who knew her and loved her (Spe Salvi, 3-5).

Later, as a woman religious, Bakhita shared her faith and the liberation she received from Jesus.  Such an encounter with the Lord of all lords, who suffered and died on the cross and rose to new life, was “an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within,” Pope Benedict wrote (Spe Salvi, 4). As Saint Josephine Bakhita shows us, that hope can lead humanity to true freedom.