Saint Spotlight: Josephine Bakhita

Photo by David Snyder/CRS

Josephine Bakhita never knew her real name.

She was so traumatized by the experiences of her childhood that she forgot it. Born in Sudan in 1869, she was captured and sold into slavery by age 9. Her captors called her “Bakhita,” which means “fortunate.”

Bakhita was traded several times and eventually sold to an Italian diplomat in Sudan who then brought her to Italy. She was given to another family in Italy, where slavery was illegal, and worked as a housekeeper and nanny. She also attended religious education classes with the child she cared for, and was so inspired by what she learned and the people she met that she entered the Church herself. She took the name “Josephine” at her Baptism. 

Josephine Bakhita later became a religious sister in the order of the Canossian Daughters of Charity. She devoted her life to caring for others through humble tasks. Bakhita was the sisters’ doorkeeper, responsible for greeting and attending those who literally came to their doorstep. In 2000 she was canonized by St. John Paul II, and the once unnamed slave child became “Saint Josephine Bakhita.” 

February 8 marks the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita and the Catholic Church’s International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking. Slavery today is still all too common, though tragically it is often overlooked. Human trafficking—a form of modern slavery—currently claims 21 million men, women and children worldwide. This means there are more slaves now than ever before in history.

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The Catholic Church is very clear about the evil of human trafficking and all slavery. Pope Francis is unequivocal in his condemnation, saying, “[Human trafficking] is a crime against humanity.” And the Church works in the United States and around the world through Catholic Relief Services by responding to the needs of those experiencing and recovering from trafficking as well as preventing future trafficking by addressing its root causes, such as poverty and migration.

In his homily during her canonization Mass, St. John Paul II said, “In St. Josephine Bakhita, we find a shining advocate of genuine emancipation. 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.” 

As we reflect on how each of us can help end slavery, let us begin with prayer, asking for the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita as we discern how God is calling us to action.