This past Monday the Holy Father spoke to two very different audiences, yet his presentations hit the same notes and, when taken together, show the unity of the message that has run through his entire pontificate.
At 10 a.m. in the Hall of Blessings Pope Francis addressed the 183 representatives of the nations from around the world that have diplomatic ties with the Vatican State, and in the afternoon he spoke via live stream to those around the globe who were observing the 7th annual International Day of Prayer. In each case he emphasized the need to do all we can to promote the dignity of the human person.
His almost one hour long audience with the diplomats was taken up with a 5,500 word document focusing on the crises of our day: health, environmental, economic, social, and political. Embedded in these remarks is his firm commitment to protecting and promoting the value of the life of all people.
The imposition of the pandemic on the lives of people in each of the countries represented in the Papal Palace “forced us to confront two unavoidable dimensions of human existence: sickness and death. In doing so, it reminded us of the value of life, of every individual human life and its dignity, at every moment of its earthly pilgrimage, from conception in the womb until its natural end.”
He went on to proclaim that this situation has had a terrible side-effect: “It is painful, however, to note that under the pretext of guaranteeing presumed subjective rights, a growing number of legal systems in our world seem to be moving away from their inalienable duty to protect human life at every one of its phases.”
Those in the pro-life camp, whether Catholic or not, were heartened by his words in defense of the unborn and all those souls who are left unprotected in our might-makes-right world.
When in the afternoon the Pontiff spoke to those involved with the International Day of Prayer he focused his pro-life message on the purpose of this day – prayer and awareness against human trafficking. In light of this year’s theme “An Economy without Human Trafficking” Francis spoke, as he did in the morning, of the need for nations to see the horror of sacrificing people on the altar of mammon.
The fact that human trafficking is so commonly referred to as “a business” or “an industry” makes the pope’s point for him. This, and let’s call it what it is, slave trade brings in $180 billion at the expense of 25 million people who were made in the image of God.
Slavery may have been outlawed in our nation and in almost all others in the world, yet the Holy Father steers our gaze to the fact that this crime against humanity continues to thrive because human life is cheap – cheap enough to kill in the womb and cheap enough to sell and exploit on the free market.
As a way of helping us to focus our attention, Francis, in 2015, declared that February 8 would be the day designated for prayer on behalf of the victims of human trafficking. February 8 happens to be the Feast Day of St. Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of those victims.
Born in Darfur, Sudan, in 1869 Josephine was kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of 7 or 8. So traumatized was she that she could not even remember her own family name, and so was given the name Bakhita (“lucky” or “fortunate”) by her captors. After being taken to Italy and eventually declared a free person by the Italian courts, she entered the Canossian Sisters of Charity at the age of 27.
St. Josephine remains relatively unknown to Catholics outside of Sudan, where she is honored as her homeland’s patron saint, yet her story is eloquently told at the beginning of the encyclical Spe Salvi of Benedict XVI. We would all do well to learn more of her life and to see her as a personal exemplar as we attempt to follow the path of Jesus. Who better to emulate than a person who, when asked what she would do if she again met her captors, said these most Christ-like words:
“If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”