YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Facing the troubled waters of a conflict in South Sudan that’s left half the country’s children as refugees, a Vatican cardinal recently blessed a boat named for the country’s best-known Catholic saint, praying that it will leave “the storm of conflict, violence, hatred, and vengeance behind.”
Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny christened the new boat, named for Saint Josephine Bakhita, at the conclusion of his Feb. 2-9 visit to the world’s newest country. It’s a wooden and iron boat will be used by the local Caritas organization to transport refugees from adjacent Sudan.
“It will be a boat that leaves the storm of conflict, violence, hatred, and vengeance behind, and sails on more peaceful waters where people can live together as brothers and sisters,” Czerny said.
South Sudan gained independence in 2011 after a brutal and deadly civil war, but just two years later, in 2013, conflict broke out in the new country, leading to a complex and dangerous situation of armed conflict, economic decline, disease and hunger.
To date, estimates are the conflict has forced 2.3 million people to flee to neighboring countries, with an additional 2.22 million people who remain internally displaced. The UN says it is the largest refugee crisis in Africa and the third-largest refugee crisis in the world.
Most recently, a ten-month battle that has ravaged that country also has resulted in a massive humanitarian emergency, with UN experts estimating that 25 million people, well in excess of the entire national population, are in need of protection and help.
Czerny, Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development on visit to South Sudan didn’t lose the opportunity to talk about resilience and hope in the face of adversity –the same resilience has said was exhibited by Bakhita.
As he celebrated Mass Feb. 8 to mark the World Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking, Czerny said Bakhita’s story is “a story of hope, from captivity and slavery to eventually learning of God in a convent of sisters.”
He said when Bakhita was freed as a slave, “she was freed, she chose a life of full commitment to God” and entered religious life.
The South Sudanese Saint is considered the patron saint of victims of human trafficking.
Czerny recalled how Bakhita “suffered greatly in her life. As a child, she was abducted and forced to walk hundreds of kilometers to be sold as a slave. During the journey to El Obeid, she was bought and sold twice. And after El Obeid, she was sold multiple times, spending many years in captivity marked by abuse and hardship”.
According to Bakhita’s biography, she was seized in 1877 by Arab slave traders at the age of 7 or 8 and forced to walk barefoot to El Obeid in Sudan, roughly 600 miles away, and was bought and sold several times along the way.
Czerny emphasized Bakhita’s inclination to forgive. She is believed to have said of her slavers: “If I met those slavers who kidnapped me, and also those who tortured me, I would kneel down and kiss their hands, because, if this had not happened, I would not be a Christian now.”
“Without them, she might not have known of Jesus, nor of the Church,” Czerny echoed, driving home the message of forgiveness in a country blighted by war and conflict.
“Despite her sufferings, and even later despite the illness she endured, she remained cheerful, always following the desires of her Master Jesus Christ,” he said.
Czerny recalled what Pope Francis said in October 2023 about Bakhita: “The vocation of the oppressed is that of freeing themselves and their oppressors, becoming restorers of humanity. Only in the weakness of the oppressed can the force of God’s love, which frees both, be revealed”.
Czerny said the pope’s message demonstrates “Bakhita’s soul. Truly, to feel pity means both to suffer with the victims of the great inhumanity in the world, and also to pity those who commit errors and injustices, not justifying, but humanizing.”
“This is the caress she teaches us: To humanize,” Czerny said.
“When we enter the logic of fighting, of division among us, of bad feelings, one against the other, we lose our humanity. And very often we think we are in need of humanity, of being more humane. And this is the work that Saint Bakhita teaches us: To humanize, to humanize ourselves and to humanize others.”