Sisters on a Mission

On Feb. 8, Catholic churches mark the feast day of a Sudanese saint, a victim of human trafficking

Super Bowl Sunday is practically a national holiday in America and one of the most-watched sporting events worldwide. For some people though, the Super Bowl and the days around it have become something else entirely:  a time to consider human sex trafficking and how it can be brought under control.  Among  those who have been mobilizing around the event since 2013:  Catholic nuns from parishes across the nation.

For these nuns, Super Bowl Sunday is a day to bring attention to how the event and other big ones like this can become hotbeds for human trafficking activities.  Sisters devoted to the cause, including many from New York, provide human trafficking awareness training for businesses in host cities ahead of the event each year and hold special daily prayers from January 11, Human Trafficking Awareness Day, to February 8, the feast day of a historical human trafficking survivor – Saint Josephine Bakhita, the only known patron saint of Sudan.

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Saint Josephine Bakhita (top center) with the Canossian Sisters of the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice, Italy.

Born in 1869 , Bakhita was  kidnapped from her village as a child. It is said that the trauma of this incident was so great for the nine-year-old that she forgot her name and her kidnappers were the ones who named her Bakhita, which means “fortunate” in Sudanese. According to accounts from the Vatican, Bakhita survived further brutal abuse by multiple slave owners in her childhood before an Italian diplomat, Callisto Legnani, bought her. Sudden political conflict in Sudan forced Legnani and his friend Augusto Michieli to flee the country, and Bakhita begged to be taken with them.

In Italy, she became the Michieli family’s property. When the family later  returned to Sudan to manage a newly acquired hotel, Bakhita stayed in Italy with the Canossian Sisters of the Institute of the Catechumens, where she discovered the Catholic faith and was given her new name, Josephine. When the family came back for her, Bakhita made clear her wish to remain with the Canossian Sisters and was freed.

Bakhita was beatified in 1992 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000, becoming a symbol and statement for what the Pope called a “firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence.”  Since she’s become a magnet for Catholic advocates for human trafficking victims.

“Saint Josephine Bakhita has become a very popular saint among people who work in anti-trafficking ministries,” said Sister Ann Oesstreich, a core member of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, part of a growing international Catholic group based in Rome for networks of sisters in 81 countries. “Those of us who work in trafficking recognize her as the saint that we pray to, a special person who understands the situation of people who are caught in slavery.”

Sister Ann said Saint Josephine Bakhita is not actually recognized by the official church as the patron saint of trafficking victims. But, she added, a number of people are very actively petitioning for that to happen.

In 2013, Pope Francis even declared Bakhita’s feast day as the world day for prayer, fasting, and awareness of human trafficking, following a request made by Sister Eugenia Bommetti, a well-known leader among religious congregations in Europe immersed in the cause. Pope Francis was also known to be a strong supporter of anti-human trafficking efforts during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires. In his encyclical letter from June 2015, the Pope included human trafficking among the issues that need to be eradicated. Activists are hopeful this will bring more attention to the issue.

“Everything is connected,” said Sister Carol De Angelo, Director of Peace, Justice and Integrity of Creation from the Sisters of Charity Federation. “Pope Francis really makes a point of saying everything’s connected, so we might be talking about climate change and poverty and inequality, but when you look at some of the root causes of human trafficking it’s all connected. When one addresses one issue, we’re also in some ways trying to address the other issues.”

The National Human Trafficking Resource, which is based in Washington, D.C., runs a hotline center and tracks the number of trafficking cases and phone calls. In New York alone last year, over 900 calls were made to the hotline number and 281 cases were recorded. But the issue still remains somewhat abstract to the public and a recent report by the State Department even highlighted the difficulty of verifying statistics related to human trafficking due to the lack of coordinated efforts between various institutions and agencies.

“As of yet, we haven’t been able to pass a bill that will help us get an accurate count for victims,” said Sister Ann. “The most important thing to us is not which cabinet department does it – it’s that it gets done. Once it gets in place we can tweak it, but it’s got to get done.”

This year on Bakhita’s feast day, sisters working for the cause are asking members of the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking to participate in a national call-in day to Congress in support of the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015, a bill in the House of Representatives that requires certain companies to disclose measures they have taken to address issues of forced labor, human trafficking and slavery.

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