Benedict XVI: “my one and final task is to pray for Pope Francis”

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Sunday February 16th. 2014                                                                                          Charity registration No. SC 002876

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St. Josephine Bakhita


She was born in about 1869 in the western Sudanesein the village of Olgosa. She belonged to the prestigious people her well respected and reasonably prosperous father was a brother of the village chief. She was surrounded by a loving family of three brothers and three sisters; as she says in her autobiography: "I lived a very happy and carefree life, without knowing what suffering"

Sometime between the age of seven to nine, probably in February 1877, she was kidnapped by Arab salve traders, who already had kidnapped her elder sister two years earlier. She was cruelly forced to walk barefoot about 600to the market and was already sold and bought twice before she arrived there. Over the course of twelve years (1877–1889) she was resold again three more times and then given away. It is said that the trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name; she took one given to her by the slavers, bakhita, Arabic for lucky.  She was also forcibly converted to Islam. In El Obeid,  Bakhita was bought by a very rich Arab merchant who employed her as a maid in service to his two daughters. They liked her and treated her well. But after offending one of her owner's sons, possibly for accidentally breaking a vase, the son lashed and kicked her so severely that she spent more than a month unable to move from her straw bed. Her fourth owner was a Turkish general and she had to serve his mother-in-law and his wife who both were very cruel to all their slaves.  Bakhita says: "During all the years I stayed in that house, I do not recall a day, that passed without some wound or other. When a wound from the whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me"

 In 1883, Bakhita was bought by the Italian Vice Consul Callisto Legnani, who was a very kind man. For the first time since her captivity she was able to enjoy some peace and tranquillity.  When she reached the age of maturity, for the first time in her life she found herself in control of her own destiny. She was looked after by the Canossioan Sisters and asked to be baptised, and given the name Josephine. During her 42 years in Schio with then nuns, Bakhita was employed as the cook, sacristan and portress (door keeper) and was in frequent contact with the local community. Her gentleness, calming voice, and ever-present smile became well known and Vicenzans still refer to her as Sor Moretta ("little brown sister") or Madre Moretta ("black mother"). Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order; the first publication of her story  in 1931, made her famous throughout Italy.. During the Second World War (1939–1945) she shared the fears and hopes of the town people, who considered her a saint and felt protected by her mere presence. Not quite in vain as the bombs did not spare Schio, but the war passed without one single casualty.

Bakhita's legacy is that transformation is possible through suffering. Her story of deliverance from physical slavery also symbolizes all those who find meaning and inspiration in her life for their own deliverance from spiritual slavery. Bakhita's story of a slave who was forced to convert to Islam and later chose Christianity represents a conflict between Christianity and Islam. In May 1992, news of her beatification was banned by Khartoum which Pope John Paul II then personally visited only nine months later.  On 10 February 1993, facing all risks, surrounded by an immense crowd in the huge Green Square of the capital of Sudan, he solemnly honoured Bakhita a saint on her own soil. "Rejoice, all of Africa! Bakhita has come back to you.

The daughter of Sudan sold into slavery as a living piece of merchandise and yet still free. Free with the freedom of the saints

The Pope walked up to the podium and briskly began his address. "There is a need for change," he said. "Every Christian and the whole community of the faithful are called to constant change." Who was this radical figure? Not Francis, but Benedict, delivering a little-remembered speech to Catholics "engaged in the life of the Church and society" in  Freiburg in 2011.

At times, he said, "the Church becomes self-satisfied, settles down in this world, becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world". When this happens "the Church must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from her tendency towards worldliness and once again to become open towards God". The challenge is not to find "a new strategy to relaunch the Church", he said. "Rather, it is a question of setting aside mere strategy and seeking total transparency, not bracketing or ignoring anything from the truth of our present situation, but living the faith fully here and now in the utterly sober light of day, appropriating it completely, and stripping away from it anything that only seems to belong to faith, but in truth is mere convention or habit."

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at the uncanny foreshadowing of Francis's pontificate in that address: the critique of the "self-referential" Church, the allergy to worldliness, the pursuit of transparency and the readiness to drop unnecessary conventions. It is, of course, because of Benedict XVI's decision to renounce the papacy a year ago this month that we now have Francis. The dissident theologian Hans Kung said this week that the Pope Emeritus had written him a letter in which he said his "one and final task" was to sustain Francis's pontificate in prayer. It's not too much of a leap to think that Benedict sees his vision of a revitalised Church being realised in Francis. He himself did not have the health or energy to achieve this, but his prayers will support Pope Francis to fulfil what were his own dreams.