144 Scars and a Heart Full of Hope: Pope Benedict on Saint Josephine Bakhita

Reading Pope Benedict's second encyclical, Spe salvi (Saved in Hope), is the best short entree to his thought. He begins by reflecting on the life of a modern saint, whose feast day it is. Josephine Bakhita was born circa 1869 in Darfur in Sudan. She was kidnapped into slavery and was savagely treated. Eventually, she was brought to Italy (no travel ban!), where she learned of the Christian God.

"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' [Venetian word for 'master'] 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."

Pope Benedict adduces Saint Bakhita to get Western Christians to feel something of the revolution that belief in the Christian God, the God of Jesus Christ, really is: "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."

This is of course the whole problem of the necessary conversion of Christians. The automation of our Christianity is why Kierkegaard had to wage a war against "Christendom" to serve the urgent project of our becoming Christian. That the truth of reality has been infused in us at baptism does not mean we're all set. It means we have just begun to live. And if we take for granted the limitless gift that has been granted, if we do not grow in faith, hope, and love, then Christianity has been bundled up and exposed in the howling wastes of our hearts.

What sense would it make to speak of evangelization, when the good news has died inside of us and bears not the novel fruits of love? When our religion has become a bourgeois habit of rules or of the breaking of rules? Of accommodations with worldliness, whether dressed up in conservative or progressive garb?

If we hunger for the Eucharist and for prayer and for Scripture, if we don't let mundane (especially monetary) calculations rob us of serenity, if we are peaceful and gentle (even in traffic! even at home!), if we are eager to forgive and be forgiven, if we yearn for more intimacy with others (no matter what differences of opinion, no matter the hurts of the past), if our hearts are open and vulnerable: then we are finally becoming Christians.

But to have an open heart in an indifferent and often brutal world requires the hope that comes from intimacy with Jesus: "Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were 'without hope and without God in the world' (Eph 2:12)."

Comfortable Christianity is almost worse than paganism: there are no questions in the fat or hardened heart, no pangs, no crying need, no eros. We have taken Jesus and have bound Him harmless before the idols of our hearts--pagans without the angst.

To be a straight-up pagan means at times recognizing the precariousness of existence: "Of course Paul knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were 'without God' and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future. In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recedimus (how quickly we fall back from nothing into nothing): so says an epitaph of that period."

Would WE could see the abyss that gapes beneath us and against which Jesus embraces us!

Would we could feel the sheer joy and wonder and gratitude of Saint Josephine Bakhita at being saved by the good Father in His good Son: "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."

The great hope: everything becomes possible because of Jesus. Every dream of good, the great love...everything becomes possible. The good Father has given us everything in Jesus. May our hearts expand in the atmosphere of a love so limitless its fullness is invisible for now--until the future of love is one with the flesh of the present. 

Saint Josephine Bakhita, pray for us!