Given at Mass commemorating the feast of St Josephine Bakhita, 8th February 2021, in Westminster Cathedral
This evening we have just heard one of the great songs of creation. The reading from the Book of Genesis reflects on the deepest meaning of the created order: that it is the work of God and that it is good! Four times in this short reading we heard that affirmation: the work of creation is good. It is good in the eyes of God and God is never deceived.
Yet today we live in times of such suffering and pain. All over this created order people are in distress, poverty, isolation, anxiety. The pandemic is wreaking havoc. The natural order itself is under such strain that many speak openly of environmental disaster just around the corner. These two factors produce terrible results: half the population of Thailand have no income; 1.6 billion people are going hungry, I am told; the facts are frightening.
All of this creates vast new reservoirs of victims for modern slavery and human trafficking, the focus of our prayer and concern on this feast day of St Josephine Bakhita. The organised criminal networks, which profit ruthlessly through the sale of our brothers and sisters as slaves and no more than commodities to be exploited, are taking full advantage of this chaos: over 40 million trapped today in modern slavery. It is pitiable: a terrible wound in the flesh of humanity, indeed in the body of Christ.
Yet today we come to proclaim Jesus as our Saviour, the one who conquers evil and who restores a broken creation. The Gospel tells us this truth in vivid and unforgettable terms.
Just before the arrival of Jesus in Gennesaret, Jesus had come to the boat of his disciples walking on the water of the stormy lake. Indeed, he had calmed the storm and said to them: ‘Do not be afraid’. Just before that, on the lake shore, he had blessed five loaves and two fish and fed over five thousand people. The limits of nature were subject to his authority, whether the storms of the sea, the shortage of food, or, as we have heard, the ravages of disease. This is so because he is the Word through whom the created order comes into being. He is the Lord of all creation. And we are invited to come to know, love and serve him as no other.
The task of the Church, our task, is to help the long wave of the Gospel message reach us, today, as we battle with our storms, our hunger and our diseases. This ‘reach of the Gospel’, its wave coming through history and now lapping onto our shores, takes place importantly through the lives of those who live the Gospel, rejoice in it, and let it be seen. St Josephine is such a fine example.
Her story is worth repeating. Born into a pagan family in Sudan, she is enslaved at the age of seven. Passed from hand to hand, maltreated on the way until her body is marked with over 150 permanent wounds, she eventually escapes and flees to a convent of sisters. There she finds peace and shelter. Indeed, she finds herself and is given new life in Christ and a new name in baptism. Towards the end of her life she is asked this sharp question: ‘What would you do if you met those who enslaved you and inflicted those scars on your body?’ She replied: ‘I would kneel before them and kiss their hands because through their actions I have come to know Christ Jesus and he is my life!’
In this, the great liberating wave of God’s grace reaches our shore! She teaches us again the beauty of having met Jesus and of coming to know him. She teaches us again the richness and joy of living with Jesus and the richness of joy of belonging to the Church. In her slavery she came to this gift.
Sometimes, in the afternoons, I come and sit here in the Cathedral. I am so glad it stays open. I thank everyone who works hard to keep it open and safe. When I am here, I see people come in, with their burdens, and sit quietly, in peace and safety. I know they treasure this space and its peace. But they are here also to keep company, to keep the company of Jesus. In the company of their Beloved they rest and are restored. It is a joy and a blessing.
Today we pray for every single person trapped in enforced labour and slavery, here in our country, in every country. Today we thank all who work so hard to free and serve them, among whom are so many religious women, in this diocese and around the world, and their supporters. I pray, too, for the network of the Santa Marta Group and its work with law enforcement agencies. Today we speak out for all those trapped in slavery and in the processes of recovery; for a greater responsiveness by our Government through its national referral mechanism and refugee appeal systems, in clear need of renewal and resources; for renewed endeavour by police forces to trace, halt and prosecute traffickers. Today we follow in the steps of St Josephine, putting our hands into the hands of the Lord where we are strengthened and renewed, from where we too can speak of our delight in his company and of our determination to serve his people.
St Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.