Tag Archives: slavery

Slave Becomes Pope

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That headline gets attention, doesn’t it? It’s true. Callistus, the saint we honor today, was actually a slave who became pope in 217 AD.

In the Roman empire slaves not only engaged in back breaking, demeaning work but they could be bank managers or principals of schools as well. Callistus, a slave, was good at finance and managing things, tradition says. In fact, he may have gotten into trouble over some of his financial transactions.

The church recognized his good qualities. When Zephyrinus became bishop of Rome, he asked Callistus to serve as deacon and to take charge of a large Christian cemetery along the Via Appia, which today bears his name. Callistus not only supervised the burial of the dead but also the care and support of the families they left behind.

When Zephyrinus died in 217 A.D. Callistus was the popular choice to succeed him. Evidently, Roman Christians saw him, not as a slave, but as a man of faith, a good administrator, who could guide and lead them. The church grew under his leadership.

Tradition says Callistus built a place of prayer at or near a hospice for old or sick soldiers in Trastevere, where healing oil welled up. Today the beautiful Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere stands on the spot. You can still see the place where the healing oil was found and Callistus’ remains are buried under the church’s main altar.1.Sant5.oil fount:st

As pope, Callistus advocated for certain causes. He favored free women being able to marry slaves. He favored ordination for men who had been married two or three times. He also maintained that the church could forgive all sins, even the sin of denying one’s faith.

Some opposed him, not because he was a slave, but because his proposals clashed with their own rather rigorous views.

In our own time, Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave brought to New York City in the 18th century, is being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church. One thing some people find strange is Toussaint’s lack of involvement in the abolition movement of his time. He certainly opposed any violent opposition to slavery; he himself delayed gaining his freedom in order to serve his owners, the Berard family.

Was he convinced that status doesn’t determine who you are, that all are equal before God? We are all God’s children “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free person, neither male nor female.” (Galatians 3,28) Was he so assured of his own dignity that it didn’t matter whether you were slave or free? Toussaint, a slave, was one of the most highly respected men in New York.

I’m sure Toussaint advocated the end of slavery. But it’s nice to know that someone wouldn’t see himself defined by status. He knew who he was.

February 8: St. Josephine Bakhita

An heroic African woman from the Sudan, Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped by slave traders when she was 9 years old and forced into slavery for almost 12 years. Pope Benedict XVI wrote of her in his encyclical letter “On Hope” as an example of God’s gift of hope. “To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope.”

“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.

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.” 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.”

Benedict XVI “Spes salvi” 2007

Josephine Bakhita died February 8, 1947 and was declared a saint in 2000.She is the patron saint of the Sudan and victims of human trafficking. For more on her, see here.

The Ascension of Our Lord

audio homily here:
In a Barnes and Noble Bookstore awhile ago, in the religion section, I noticed a good number of books on heaven. Most of these, as far as I could judge, are accounts of people who say they’ve been there or just about, and are reporting on their experience. Looks like heaven is an item of some interest today.

The Feast of the Ascension is our basic book on heaven. Jesus promises us a home there. The Ascension is part of the Easter mystery. On Easter Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead and for forty days, scripture say, he ate and drank and met with his disciples to build up their faith. Then, he ascended into heaven.

Rising from the dead was not the end of his story. He rose from the dead but did continue life on earth as before. He didn’t rise like those whom he raised from the dead, like Lazarus whom he called from the tomb, like the little girl and the dead son of a widow of Naim. They went back to ordinary life. Jesus did not.

No, after he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, our creed says. He entered another world beyond this one, a world greater than this one. There, from a place of great power, he extends his promise and power to us here on earth.

When I was a boy, I remember my father buying a record player. It was the mid 1940’s and times were hard; I’m sure he broke the family bank to pay for it. For a good while he only had a couple of those old vinyl records he would play over and over.

One of them was a haunting black spiritual sung by Marian Anderson called “Heaven.”
“I got shoes, and you got shoes, all God’s children got shoes.
When I getta heaven gonna put on my shoes
and gonna walk all over God’s heaven, heaven.
Everybody’s talking bout Heaven ain’t goin’ there.
heaven, heaven. Gonna walk all over God’s heaven.”

I still remember the hope in that great singer’s voice and in the song she sang. She was singing the song of barefooted slaves who were looking for something more. It wasn’t just a pair of shoes that would wear out after awhile. These were shoes God gave you in heaven, a place of completed dreams. Once you put on those shoes you could walk freely and walk everywhere.

The Feast of the Ascension points to heaven as our final home, where all our dreams are realized, where tears are wiped away, where sadness is no more, where wrongs are righted, where reunion with those we love takes place, where we enjoy the presence of God and all the saints.

For now, we only have hints of heaven. We only have assurances of faith. And it’s not enough, as the spiritual says, just to talk about it, we must walk in the steps of Jesus. Walking in his steps brings us, not to a grave, but to the place where he is. That’s heaven.

I wonder why our first reading stops where it does, because the next line says that the disciples walked back to Jerusalem, to the place where they were living. “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city they went to the upper room where they were staying.”

Before we walk in heaven, we have to keep walking on earth.

Let’s Look at the Saints

This morning, the last day of our mission here at St. Charles Borromeo, the school children were at the 8.30 Mass and participated beautifully in the liturgy. I spoke about St. Josephine Bakhita who was kidnapped and sold into slavery as a 7 year old girl in the Sudan, in Africa, around the year 1876.

She worked around the kitchen, cleaned the house and took care of the younger children of her African slave owners. Later, she was bought from them by a European family living in Africa then, and did the same things for them.

The family moved to Italy and brought Bakhita with them. One of her tasks was to take a younger child of the family to a Catholic school, where he became acquainted with the Daughters of Charity, the religious women who taught there.

When the family decided to return to Africa, Bakhita refused to go. The sisters and others made her aware that she didn’t belong to that family. She was a daughter of God who had rights of her own. In fact, Italian law forbade slavery.

Bakhita was freed and took the name Josephine. She was so impressed with the sisters that she joined their community.  She died in Italy in 1947 and was canonized a saint in 2000.

I told the children and others there at Mass that our church upholds human rights. We want all people to enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Jesus came that people should be free.

Wonderful story to tell children. There should be no slaves in our world. Our church has been given a mission by Jesus: that all have rights to be free, to have a place to live, a family, food, medical care.

St. Josephine lived a holy life till she died. St. Josephine pray for us and help all those who are enslaved. Help us work for human rights.