With the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday coming up and Black History Month just around the corner, we feel it’s important to acknowledge the significant roles black men and women have played in the life of the Catholic Church.
It’s a timely topic also in light of the incredible influence of African bishops during the synod on the family, as they vocally proclaimed their support for the traditional teachings of the Church. Where the passion of westerners for their faith has grown lukewarm or worse, the vibrancy, vitality and influence African Catholicism seems ever on the rise. It has been said by some that the Church in Africa represents great hope for the future of Holy Mother Church.
Did the Catholics who marched with Dr. King ever think a day would come when two black men were on the short list of contenders for the papacy? Yet, that’s just what happened during the conclave that elevated Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio to the Chair of St. Peter. Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria and Peter Cardinal Turkson of Ghana were both regarded by Vatican-watchers as papabile (a likely candidate for pope). If you have been paying attention to the recent Synod on the Family you would also have heard the name of Robert Cardinal Sarah quite a bit.
Strong black Catholics…nothing new there
There’s a distinguished black heritage running back to the earliest days of Christianity, but we’re not going to go back that far today. When you look at Church history in terms of race and ethnicity it’s a certainty that someone is going to be left out. Take saints, for instance—according to one source, we have close to 1000 saints who are either black or African or both. We don’t have images or descriptions of all of them, so we have no idea how many of them were black.
Yes. Yes. We all know about St. Martin de Porres. No offense to St. Martin but he’s already gotten plenty of attention (some of it from us) so we’re going to use this opportunity to introduce someone you may not already know—an incredible woman named, St. Josephine Bakhita.
Thanks for understanding, St. Martin!
A girl named, “Fortunate” She couldn’t remember her real name; the horror of being seized and sold into slavery drove it from her mind. Her kidnappers called her “Bakhita”—which means, “fortunate.” Apparently her human traffickers had a flare for irony as well as cruelty. Bakhita was forced into a world where she was bought, sold and brutalized, time and again.
But all that changed when Bakhita was purchased by an Italian Consul and brought into his household as a servant. The Vatican website describes the experience, “For the first time since the day she was kidnapped, she realized with pleasant surprise, that no one used the lash when giving her orders; instead, she was treated in a loving and cordial way.”
When the Consul needed to return to Italy, he agreed to leave Bakhita with friends—a Mr. and Mrs. Michieli—who had expressed an interest in her. When the Michielis infant daughter was born, the child was entrusted to Bakhita’s tender care; the two became great friends.
A sister named, “Josephine”
Eventually, business made an extended visit to Sudan necessary for the Michielis; Bakhita, along with the daughter, were boarded with the Canossian Daughters of Charity. It was during her time with the Canossian Sisters that Bakhita grew to know and love Jesus. She was baptized in 1890, adding “Josephine” to her name. In 1896, after coming of age and claiming her freedom according to Italian law, Josephine Bakhita was consecrated a Canossian Sister.
St. Josephine Bakhita went on to win the admiration of many through her simple, humble way of living her vocation and her utter devotion to Our Lord. The Vatican website calls her, “a true witness of the love of God” also saying, “Her humility, her simplicity and her constant smile won the hearts of all the citizens. Her sisters in the community esteemed her for her unalterable sweet nature, her exquisite goodness and her deep desire to make the Lord known.”
And so, a simple girl rose from slavery to become a saintly example of kindness and Christian devotion to us all.