Black Holiness Matters

Casey Mullaney (Theology PhD Candidate, University of Notre Dame)

In the United States, we just finished celebrating Black History month. Here in Indiana, we can feel that the days are lengthening and the rays of the sun are getting stronger. We can feel spring coming, and even in the cold of February and early March, there have been glimpses of light and warmth. Black History month feels like that, too. For our Sunday school class, Black History month was a chance to recommit to honoring the courage, creativity, and perseverance of Black people, who as individuals and within their communities have preserved and nurtured the Divine light within themselves throughout centuries of racism. Our young students of all races need and deserve examples of Black excellence, which though abundant, have often been overlooked by majority-white communities, even within the Church.

I am a catechist for a small, informal Sunday school group, loosely organized through our local Catholic Worker community. Right now, we are five adults and four children from a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds. During the pandemic, we have gathered outdoors every week to study the mass readings together and discover how our faith animates and enlightens our lives. In our time together, we have formed deep intergenerational friendships and relationships of solidarity, learning who we are in God’s eyes. The other adults and I are learning right alongside the children, and we have found that the saints are our best co-catechists. By teaching the Christian story through the lives of the saints, we can honor the experiences and cultural context of each of our students. For February, our little class spent time with one of the Church’s great Black saints, Mother Josephine Bakhita.

Mother Josephine’s story is cruciform, like that of all the saints, and illustrates the inherent dignity of the human person in all stages and circumstances of life. Born into a loving Sudanese family in 1869, Josephine’s early childhood was joyful and carefree. She had an eye for beauty and felt God’s presence in the wild spaces around her village. She spent her time playing with her siblings and helping with household chores. This happy childhood ended abruptly when she was captured at the age of seven or eight and sold into slavery. The trauma of abduction and enslavement caused the young girl to forget her mother tongue, the names of her parents and siblings, and even her own birth name. She was given the name “Bakhita” by her captors and sold to various owners who exploited her labor and physically abused her.

Bakhita was eventually sold to an Italian family who used her as a caregiver for their young daughter. Although this family treated her like property, Bakhita poured her love into the little girl, Mimmina, who flourished under her care. The couple who owned Bakhita left her and their daughter at the convent of the Canossian sisters. For the first time since being taken from her family of origin, Bakhita had a chance to rest, learn, and contemplate her own identity. In the home of the Sisters, Bakhita encountered Christianity for the first time. Later in life, she said, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”

While living among the Sisters, Bakhita entered the catechumenate; however, her preparations for baptism were interrupted when Mimmina’s parents returned to the convent after a year, demanding that their daughter and Bakhita return to their custody. Bakhita refused to leave. In the convent, Bakhita had found peace and freedom as God’s beloved child. She would not return to a life of slavery. With the help of her catechetical director, Bakhita sued for her liberty, and on November 29th, 1889, an Italian court ruled that since slavery was illegal under Italian law, Bakhita had been legally free since the moment her feet touched Italian soil. Bakhita was baptized as Josephine Margaret Fortunata on January 9th, 1890 and three years later entered the novitiate of the Canossian sisters, remaining with the community until her death in 1947.

Mother Josephine’s life was characterized by multiple occurrences of death and resurrection, underlaid by constant attentiveness to God’s presence and fidelity to the Cross. We have a few photographs of her, and in one of them, she is gazing up at a crucifix. In contemplating the echo of the Cross in community with her sisters, Josephine found her identity as God’s beloved. Among all the saints, Mother Josephine might best teach us the meaning and purpose of catechesis– God’s invitation to freedom and belonging, to community, to peace and security. It was in the catechumenate that Josephine was empowered to claim her destiny and literally free herself from slavery. Perhaps in our classes, whether they are meeting virtually, in the school room, or in a friend’s backyard, we can offer our students the hospitable, contemplative atmosphere that Mother Josephine found in the Canossian convent. If we can do this, what great invitation to liberation might God have in store for us?

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