The Holy Father’s recent series of General Audience addresses has covered virtues and vices, during which he has spoken about many topics, including the importance of forgiveness, guarding against nurturing anger, and resolving conflict in families. The Church has given us numerous examples of Christians who have been graced with the ability of profound forgiveness (St. Maria Goretti comes to mind); and during this month of February, we honor St. Josephine Bakhita, a stellar example of a forgiving spirit.

“It is important that everything be dissolved immediately, before the sun sets,” Pope Francis emphasized during his exhortation to the faithful. “If some misunderstanding may arise during the day and two people may no longer understand each other, suddenly perceiving themselves to be far apart, address it and reconcile, so the night will not be handed over to the devil.”

Born in Sudan in 1869, St. Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped, sold and resold into slavery in the markets of El Obeid and Khartoum, experiencing the torments of lashing. Once, she was beaten so severely that she was incapacitated for a month. She spent so much time in captivity that she forgot her original name.

Later, she was bought by an Italian Consul, Callisto Legnani, and for the first time since her kidnapping, Bakhita was treated humanely. When political situations forced the Consul to leave for Italy, Bakhita obtained permission to go with him and a friend, Augusto Michieli. Upon their arrival in Genoa, Bakhita was left with Mr. Michieli’s wife and became a caregiver for their infant daughter Mimmina.

Circumstances prompted the Michielis to entrust Mimmina and Bakhita to the Canossian Sisters of the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice. It was there that Bakhita came to know God.

Bakhita received the sacraments of Christian initiation and was given the new name Josephine. From that day on, she was often seen kissing the baptismal font and saying: “Here, I became a daughter of God!”

When Mrs. Michieli returned from Africa to reclaim her daughter and Bakhita, the newly-christened Josephine expressed her desire to remain with the Canossian Sisters. There she remained in the catechumenate where she experienced the call to be a religious.

On December 8, 1896 Josephine Bakhita was consecrated forever to God.

For the last 50 years of her life, Sister Josephine lived in the community, serving others by cooking, sewing, embroidery and attending to the door. In her final years, sickness was a constant companion, though she never lost a sense of Christian hope. To those who visited her and asked how she was, she would respond, “As the Master wishes.”

During her final agony, she relived the terrible days of her slavery and more than once begged the nurse who assisted her to “please, loosen the chains… they are heavy!” Her last words were: “Our Lady! Our Lady!”

Sister Josephine Bakhita breathed her last on February 8, 1947 at the Canossian Convent, Schio, surrounded by the Sisters. She was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II on October 1, 2000, and her feast day is celebrated February 8.

Humility and Forgiveness

“St. Josephine Bakhita,” said Pope Francis during a weekly general audience in October 2023, “With her example, shows us the way to finally be free of our slavery and fears, to unmask our hypocrisies and selfishness, to overcome resentments and conflicts; to reconcile with ourselves and find peace in our families and communities, and offers us a light of hope in these difficult times of mistrust and distrust of others.”

It is said that St. Josephine once replied when asked what she would do if she ever saw her kidnappers again, that she would, “Kneel and kiss their hands, because if not for them, she wouldn’t be a Canossian or a Christian.”

Pope John Paul II famously forgave his would-be assassin Mehmet Ah Agca, sitting with him, holding his hand, and praying with him. Reports stated that by the end of this historic visit in Agca’s Rebibbia prison cell, the man who attempted to assassinate the Holy Father either kissed his hand or pressed the Pope’s hand to his forehead in a sign of Muslim respect.

As Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

This is what we are all called to do, and God has given us concrete examples of profound forgiveness throughout history in the lives of his saints, but most importantly, through the words His Son uttered when dying upon the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” ( Luke 23:24)

During this month of February, especially as we begin this Lenten season, may we always remember that we are called to forgive, over and over again, and that God’s grace is always available for those who ask.

Image: “St Josephine Bakhita with the staff and” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Catholic Church (England and Wales). © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk. 

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Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky.  As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries.  She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.

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