Friday, February 8, 2013

Slavery: It Hasn't Gone Away

The feast of St Josephine Bakhita!  And what a wonderful Saint she is.  If you do not know the story of her life Wikipedia offers a good summary.  Pope Benedict speaks of her as a witness to hope in his encyclical Spe Salvi.  His words are worth quoting in full:
Yet at this point a question arises: in what does this hope consist which, as hope, is “redemption”? The essence of the answer is given in the phrase from the Letter to the Ephesians quoted above: the Ephesians, before their encounter with Christ, were without hope because they were “without God in the world”. To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope. We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God. The example of a saint of our time can to some degree help us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time. I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father's right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”. On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter's lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.
Later this morning at Mass, we will venerate a relic of St Josephine, as we pray for those who today live as slaves - and I am not speaking in a metaphorical sense.  Slavery continues today, and it may come as a surprise that there are people who are enslaved in Ireland. 

We all know of those poor women who have been trafficked and forced to work as prostitutes – sex trafficking is a serious problem in the world today.  But the more “traditional” practice of slavery also continues as men and women are “owned” by people and families and forced to work without pay, hidden away from the general population.  The recent case of the travellers in the UK is one such example, but  there are many other cases, perhaps not very far from us.  “Respectable” people have brought foreign workers into Ireland with promises of work and good conditions; their passports have been taken and they are forced to work for little or no pay while living in dreadful conditions.  This is a side of modern Ireland which rarely gets coverage: it is hidden like a dirty little secret. 

It has been almost two centuries since William Wilberforce and his colleagues finally managed to rid slavery from our country - Ireland and the UK were one State then.   Yet the scandal of this injustice continues.  St Josephine is a worthy patron of those still enslaved, but she also urges us to do what we can to rid the world of this evil, to respect all people, to give them what is due to them, and to ensure that all can live their lives in freedom.

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