ROME — Building on one of Pope Francis’ top social and political priorities, the Vatican has presented plans for a first-ever “International Day of Prayer and Reflection against Human Trafficking” to be held Feb. 8.

Trafficking in human beings is an illegal industry estimated to affect 36 million people around the world and to generate $150 billion in annual profits. It’s been a matter of concern for Francis from his time in Argentina, and has emerged as a core preoccupation of his papacy.

Strikingly, the prayer day announced in Tuesday’s news conference will bring together several Vatican departments as well as the main umbrella groups for women and men in religious orders, since those congregations have long been on the front lines of the anti-trafficking fight.

Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the prayer day is a mobilization on a global scale.

“Our awareness must expand and extend to the very depths of this evil and its farthest reaches,” Turkson said, “from awareness to prayer … from prayer to solidarity … and from solidarity to concerted action, until slavery and trafficking are no more.”

The date for the initiative is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, considered a patron saint for trafficking victims. Born in 1868 in Darfur, Sudan, she was kidnapped at the age of nine and sold into slavery, first in her country and later in Italy. She died in 1947 and was declared a saint by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000.

“For those who cry out — usually in silence — for liberation, St. Josephine Bakhita is an exemplary witness of hope,” Turkson said.

Italian Cardinal Antonio Maria Vegliò said the presence of three cardinals at Tuesday’s news conference shows “the importance of the issue,” referring to himself, Turkson, and Brazilian João Braz de Aviz.

Yet, Vegliò said, the nuns on hand are the real experts.

“It’s the sisters who are doing the work; you should listen to them,” Veglio told the assembled journalists.

Sister Carmen Sammut of Malta, a member of the Missionary Servants of Our Lady of Africa and the president of the International Union of Superiors General, said the day of prayer is intended to achieve two things:

  • First is a lament in the Biblical sense: “We want to cry out in the name of all the victims [and ask], ‘Until when, Lord’?”
  • Secondly, “We want to light up the world, that is, to bring hope to those who are without hope.”

Sister Valeria Gandini, a member of the Comboni sisters who has been working with illegal immigrants in Sicily for years, said contact with the victims of trafficking is essential to grasp the true nature of the problem.

“To understand what it means to human trafficking, we must meet the victims, listen to them, look them in the eyes, embrace them,” she said.

Gandini said that to understand the effects of modern slavery, one has to talk with the person who has been victim of violence, deprived of his or her freedom, guarded by “owners,” raped, threatened, bought and sold, and forced into silence.

“The feelings, emotions, fears, are something indescribable,” said Gandini.

She said the young women forced to prostitute themselves don’t ask for help because they live in fear and shame as well as silence.

“It’s silence that for us is deafening,” Gandini said.

Sister Gabriella Bottani, an Italian member of the Sisters of Mary Reparatrix who works in Brazil, said the day of prayer will help “break the crust of superficiality … that impedes us from knowing other person like brother or sister.”

Bottani is the coordinator of Talitha Kum: International Network of Consecrated Life Against Trafficking in Persons, which originates from a project implemented in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration and funded by the United States government.

When presenting the initiative in the United States in December, the auxiliary bishop of Seattle, Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the US committee for migration, said that “if just one person realizes from this day that they or someone they know is being trafficked, we will have made a difference.”

Parishes around the world are organizing prayer vigils, and are invited to share their initiatives on the interactive website A Light Against Human Trafficking. Besides the initiatives, the site includes the testimony of victims, survivors, and family members of those killed in slavery.

Among other signs of Pope Francis’ commitment to anti-trafficking efforts, last year he founded the inter-religious Global Freedom Network, which is funded by Australian philanthropist and mining magnate Andrew Forrest.

In 2014, through the network, Francis summoned Anglican, Orthodox, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, and Muslim leaders to sign a joint declaration against modern slavery — in the sense of human trafficking, forced labor, prostitution, and organ trafficking — declaring it a crime against humanity.

During a youth symposium against modern slavery organized at the Vatican last November, the pope called for a hands-on approach into solving the issue.

“Collaborating with this cause is not enough for a Christian,” the pope said, speaking to a Rome symposium. “We’re called to commit to the cause,” he said, even if this means risking one’s life.

The theme of Pope Francis’ Message for the 48th World Day of Peace, held Jan. 1, was “Slaves no more, but brothers and sisters.”

“We ought to recognize,” Francis wrote, “that we are facing a global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any community or country. In order to eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.”

At Tuesday’s news conference, Albanian Sister Imelda Pool, a member of the Sisters of Loreto, said that in 2014, the number of victims from Albania being trafficked into the United Kingdom had grown by 60 percent. She used that statistic to call for a deeper commitment from governments and other social actors.

“Let’s go even further [than praying],” Pool said. “Let’s all of us together do more against this evil.”