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.Aside: This general was Turk, as Sudan was under Turkish rule from 1821 through 1885. As Sr. Josephine herself recounted in detail, her treatment in this household was abominable, even for a slave. She was beaten nearly to death, and while still recovering, she was subjected to a brutal scarring via knife-cuts over her torso and arms meant to mark her for life as a piece of chattel. Her account of her days as a slave may be read in Bakhita: From Slave to Saint by Roberto Italo Zanini. Returning to Spe Salvi...
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.”Could a humble woman like Sr. Josephine ever have considered that she would be mentioned so prominently in a Papal Encyclical?
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.
During her life, Sr. Josephine made a profound impact on those who came to know her. During World War I, her convent was at one time turned into a field hospital serving Italian soldiers returning from the front. As Roberto Zanini records in his abovementioned book:
Mother Genoveffa De Battisti remembered: “It was not a rare sight to have officers and soldiers standing around the Little Brown Mother, all wanting to hear her story. Bakhita, equipped with Mother Superior’s permission, and with a simplicity that was all her own, narrated in her ungrammatical language the adventures and facts that she always attributed to the good God, who guided her with special love to become his spouse. Who paid attention to her grammatical mistakes? Who laughed? Nobody. All of them were filled with admiration and compassion for that innocent one who had suffered so much and who had appeared in their eyes to be an extraordinary being. And her lectures about eternal truths? More than one of her listeners would have taken them to heart, treasuring them later during the dangerous trials of war. And the reprimands she would give if she heard someone cursing? It did not matter if it came out of the mouth of a simple foot soldier or an officer—she would give them a warning and then made a point of exhorting and enlightening them about eternal truths until the guilty party promised to make amends and wanted to regain God’s grace.”