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How the Church Has Changed the World: Blessed Are You

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

"What is your name, miserable filth?" sneered her captors in the desert sun.


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bahkitaThe girl couldn't answer.  She could eventually bring a decent price, the slave traders thought, except for the stubborn staring.

"What is your name?" they roared, with the lash of a whip.

She couldn't say.  There had been a time when she knew.  A vision flitted across her mind: her father, in royal robes, the chief of the people, walking among the green groves of Sudan, with her at his side.  The smell of figs growing overripe and sticky-sweet in the sun; the happy chatter of other children; watercourses from the mountains; there was a time.  Then came the slavery.

Knocking her to the fiery sand: "I know what your name will be," the men said mockingly — "Bakhita."

It means "Fortunate."

The indelible

Fortunate was sold again and again over the next twelve years.  She would be beaten, whipped, and one particularly cruel mistress would have patterns cut in Fortunate's flesh, even rubbing salt into the exposed and bleeding wounds, branding them as permanent scars.  Fortunate cried out — who wouldn't?  But there was within her a great oasis of peace, even then, and that oasis her tormentors could not enter, and that made them hate her all the more.  Fortunate suffered this torment not once or twice, but 114 times.

At last Fortunate fell into the hands of an Italian consul, who treated her kindly.  With him she crossed the desert and the sea, and came to Italy, where she was sold as a servant into another family, one that also had dealings in Sudan.

But there was within her a great oasis of peace, even then, and that oasis her tormentors could not enter, and that made them hate her all the more.

"Signorina Mimmina," said Fortunate, accompanying her little mistress to school, "tell me another story about the good Mother." Water lapped at the base of the porch where they were sitting, and seagulls and pigeons flew overhead. That was not unusual for Venice.

The girl obliged. She had a superior air about her, but she liked Fortunate, and felt sorry for her. "When the angel came to her," she said, "Mary didn't know she was going to have a Son, and she worried about what his name would be. But the angel whispered the name into her ear," said the little girl, embellishing the story with ribbons. "When her husband Joseph asked about the Boy's name, the Mother whispered it into his ear too, and right then," she said, clapping her hands, "Joseph fell to his knees."

"Why did he do that?" asked Fortunate, her eyes big and wide.

"Silly," said Mimmina, "everybody knows that that's what you do when you hear the name of Jesus," and she gave her head a pretty little bow.

"I know that too," said Fortunate, and the green groves came to mind again. Somehow, she would say many years later, she always knew of God, though she did not know his name.

They bore the seal

Eventually Mimmina Michieli went to Sudan herself, along with her father the businessman, but Fortunate stayed behind at the convent of the Canossian sisters.

The sisters did not live the high life. They were on fire to assist the poor, feed the hungry, teach children, and bring the good news of Jesus to places far away from the comfort and beauty of Venice: to Hong Kong, India, Macau, and Singapore. They took Bakhita to their hearts.

When Mimmina returned, she wanted Fortunate back as a servant, but by this time Fortunate was a young woman who knew her own mind, and who wanted to serve Jesus along with the sisters. The case went to court, with the sisters pleading that since Fortunate had been kidnapped after slavery had been outlawed in Sudan, she — who had morally preserved her freedom through untold suffering and indignity — was legally free. The court agreed, and Fortunate remained with the sisters, learning the Catholic Faith.

"What have you chosen for your name?" asked the archbishop, standing beside the font and preparing to seal the young woman's forehead with the oil of salvation.

"Josephine Margaret Fortunata," she said. We may think of Saint Joseph the protector and Mary, most Fortunate, on either side of Margaret, "Pearl," the pearl of great price. She who had been sold and sold again now gave herself forever to Jesus, in whose bonds alone is freedom to be found.

"Josephine Margaret Fortunata," said Archbishop Sarto, someday to be known as Pope Saint Pius X, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Thus did one saint carve upon another the tattoo of the Lord. A few years later, the cardinal was present when Josephine Bakhita, as we know her, took her final vows.

When people asked Sister Josephine what she would do if she met again the men who had kidnapped her, she replied, "I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian today."

Madre Moretta

Sister Josephine, so far from the place of her birth, spent the rest of her life in the vicinity of Vicenza, at the convent of Schio.  But her heart, they said, was always in Africa, and so she helped to train young sisters who were to venture forth as missionaries into the continent.  For it was not only Italian politicians and businessmen who looked across the seas to Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan.  Others had better motives.

"It was the sun," she laughed.  "My mother and father left me in the sun one day, and I turned brown."

Her life at the convent was like that of Saint Alphonso Rodriguez of Majorca, or Saint André Bessette: a life of regular labor and cheerful service.  She was cook, sacristan, and portress, and she involved herself in the lives of the people of the community.

"Madre Moretta," said a little boy, "why are you so brown?" He climbed up on the water-trough in the square, his bare legs dangling out of his short trousers.  He gave her the affectionate name by which the Vicentini called her.

"It was the sun," she laughed.  "My mother and father left me in the sun one day, and I turned brown."

"Little Brown Mother," he kept on, "did you come from far away?"

"Far away, Domenichino," she said, drawing water and filling two rather large casks, bound by a leather strap for carrying.  Her voice was soft, and sounded like singing. 

"Past the ocean and the desert."

"Do you have any torte for me today, Madre Moretta?" he asked, now dangling upside down, hooking his bare feet under the spout.

"I always have torte for my Domenichino!" she said, slinging the casks over her shoulder and limping down the alley.  The torments of her early life had long begun to tell.  But people had sought her out.  She didn't understand why.  The woman named Zandolini wrote her storia meravigliosa, her story full of marvels.  She had a name throughout Italy.

The boy followed after.  "Madre Moretta," he said, "when the bombs come from the sky, you say, 'Bombs, don't you fall on my Schio!'" There was war coming, always war.

"I will pray it, and you pray too!" she said.  She prayed continually, finally confined to a wheelchair.

The bombs fell, but not one soul from Schio was lost.

Worthy is the lamb that was slain

When Pope Saint John Paul II was asked what was the purpose of suffering, he replied, "To unleash love." Out of the evil that men had done to Sister Josephine, God brought forth far more than the endurance an unbeliever might admire.  He brought forth love in Christ, the Lamb: He brought forth love that the world otherwise never knew and never shall know.

When Pope Saint John Paul II was asked what was the purpose of suffering, he replied, "To unleash love."

In her last years, racked by pain, Sister Josephine would say that she was well, because things were as her Master wanted them to be.  They say that in her last few days she felt again the hard chains as she was prodded across the desert, and cried, "Make them looser — they are too tight!" It was the final trial.

For she was crossing the desert again, to return to the green groves where she was born.  And she did return, in the glorious liberty of the saints of God.  In 1993, Pope John Paul II, having declared Josephine Bakhita "blessed," spread his arms wide in Khartoum itself, crying, "Rejoice, all of Africa! Bakhita has returned to you."

She was declared a saint in 2000, the patron saint of Sudan. 

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Blessed Are You." Magnificat (February, 2019).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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