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  • Writer's pictureNnaemeka Ali, O.M.I

Café Oasis is an activity of the Oasis Pastoral Centre. A monthly program of this centre located in the heart of Saint Paul University, Ottawa. It begins early in the morning, just as students and staff arrive at the university for their daily activities. Early on, the director and a few of her collaborators bring out different delicacies.

​The table was unique in this month of February. The café oasis coincided with the feast of Saint Valentine. To show their love for each other, Café Oasis made the environment wear the colour of love. There were beautiful red petals on the table. The coffee of the day was also as aromatic as ever, too.

​Furthermore, it was a lovely winter day. Although the Sun was timid as usual, it was indeed on rendezvous. It smiled shyly, as if in love. In its habitual family gaiety, the university provided a moment for the community to share the joy of Saint Valentine's celebration.

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  • Writer's pictureNnaemeka Ali, O.M.I

This morning, our community celebrated the feast of saint Josephine Bakhita. An optional memorial in the Canadian and Roman calendars and, unfortunately, in both francophone and anglophone African Catholic calendars. Were it to be in any other continent, today – February 8 – would have been declared an obligatory memorial, if not a continental feast. But, as we often see, our own is not always valued because we know many saints celebrated in the continent who have no connection with the motherland. For this reason, we keep asking: when will we become a Church that respects our history and experience of God?

Josephine Bakhita is the first Sudanese saint. Born around 1869, she was sold into slavery around seven or eight. Born to a wealthy family, she had a happy childhood before danger stroke. She said of her childhood, “I lived a very happy and carefree life, without knowing what suffering was.” And, like her elder sister, she was kidnapped and sold by Arab slavers.

Though a child, they said she walked over 900 km before arriving at El Obeid. And during this horrific journey, Bakhita was sold twice. Later, she was sold three more other times. It is essential to underline that Bakhita was not her given name. During these long traumatic journeys, she forgot her given name and continued to bear Bakhita (بخيتة) (the) lucky (one) (the) fortunate, a name given to her by one of the slave masters.

Few of her recorded slave memories were horrific. So, while recalling her life with the fourth family that owned her, she said:

“During all the years I stayed in that house, I do not recall a day that passed without some wound or other. Then, when a wound from the whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me.”

The punishment was so cruel that her life was like hell on earth. Bakhita explains the pain of receiving over 114 marks on her breast, belly, and right arm when talking about a scarification and tattooing ceremony performed on her and other slaves in these words: In her words, “I felt I was going to die any moment, especially when they rubbed me in with the salt,” (Dagnino, Maria Luisa, 1993, 52–53).

It was through the family of her fifth master, an Italian Vice Consul, Callisto Legnani, that Bakhita came to Italy, and even then, her ordeal was not yet over. Though the family of Callisto treated her well, she was later given to the family of one Augusto Michieli.

Bakhita met the Institute of the Daughters of Charity, known as the Connosa Sisters, through this last family. After spending time with them, she said: “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.” (Zanini, Bakhita, 91.)

She will later become a Connosa sister and will spend the rest of her life as a sewer, cook and porter, and took care of the poor. This took time, as the Michaeli family wanted to take her back to Sudan once they decided to return to Africa. The Connosa sisters had to involve the Cardinal and the royal governor, who insisted that since slavery was illegal in Italy, Bakhita was free to make her decision.

Before Bakhita died on 8 February 1947 in Schio, her biography was already published, and she spent years travelling from city to city, speaking about her ordeal. On 1 October 2000, Bakhita was canonized, becoming one of the saints with an unusual journey to sainthood. She is celebrated on February 8, the date of her death, as an optional memorial in the Roman Calendar. Unfortunately, February 8 is also considered an optional memorial in the African continent, where she should have been elevated as a model to our society, still under different forms of slavery. One wonders why 8 February remains an optional memorial in the continent. In every other church in the world, she should have been raised into a continental heroine as one of our few brothers and sisters whom our society failed and who succeeded in turning her story into a happy end. She is proof that despite our present circumstances as a continent, there is hope that God can still change our story for good. As she says: "If we had no hope in the Lord, what would we do in this world? What can we do if we have no hope that God can still save our continent from bad leaders and neocolonialism?

This quote from summarizes well the importance of this great daughter of Anawo, the pride of Oduduwa, Olodumare, and Chukwu-okike.

“Bakhita is truly the most African Saint, and her life story is a story of the Continent, concerning Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, or followers of traditional African religions. Yet, her spirituality and endurance make her Our Universal Sister.”

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  • Writer's pictureNnaemeka Ali, O.M.I

Every religion on earth claims to be the true one. And each believes that only they understand God’s will better. And genuinely, the true adepts adhere and profess their faith in truth and good faith. This is important to always bear in mind. And to respect this basic fact, it’s better not to drag other people’s religious symbols and beliefs to the ground. I have seen people trying to explain away other people’s faith like they are stupid for believing in them. I’m not talking about those beliefs that ruin other people’s life.

For example, if people say that a masquerade is their ancestor, why does one feel obliged to tell the whole world that they are making a mistake in thinking so? How does such faith prevent one from believing in one’s idea of Three Persons in One God, for example?

Furthermore, when people agree that their chief priest is chosen by their oracle, who made you the judge of the authenticity of their communal credence? Why do you think you have the mandate to save anyone who believes they need to pray before the statue of a Saint or a divinity?

Certain belief systems might be less liberating. Their adepts might need to be more outstanding in uplifting some members. And in that case, the best step might not be to destroy their faith but to bring the persons under such circumstances to light. And one can do that without making a mockery of their faith.

Besides, we often must remember that while we think our languages make sense, others might see them as making zero sense. You might also feel that your faith is the only true one, but not those who do not share the grace of your faith. They could be wondering why they should believe the tenets of your faith.

As a Christian, you can’t imagine why anyone should doubt that Christ resurrected from death, for example. But have you ever imagined that though it could be evident to you, it’s still a crazy idea for someone who has not had the grace to share in such an incomprehensible reality? On the other hand, as a Muslim, you might be convinced undoubtedly that the Koran was dictated to Prophet Muhammad. But you don’t understand that those ideas might sound too pretentious for a Christian who believes that after Christ, there is no other Major revelation possible.

You might also think that those who practice traditional religion are simply out of their minds to believe that the ancestors share in the libation they pour on the ground. So, how do you think it sounds to such people when they hear that a priest can take unleavened bread and, after a few words, turn it into the body of Christ? How do you explain to anyone who does not share your faith that one can eat the Body of God? It appears evident in the “eyes of your faith,” but what a silly thought it can be for someone who does not have such grace.

Furthermore, I have heard people discuss the universal objectivity of their faith. Every sophist can defend that, too, I concur. Yet, faith is such a tricky thing that speaking about it in terms of universal objectivity seems out of context. We build our different faith defensive arguments from our respective religious experiences and holy books. How objective is a biblical or Quranic view for someone who does not believe God revealed himself in those Holy books?

One can ask whether their objectivity depends on the beliefs of those who do not ascribe to such faith. Of course, we can argue that it does not. Yet, who determines which version of faith is the right one? Why should one of them be universally credible and not the others?

Those are the dilemma surrounding the pretense of universal objectivity of any giving faith.

And before one accuses religion of not being as objective as science, one has to check out some of these scientific theories — Fleischmann–Pons’s Nuclear Fusion, Phrenology, The Blank Slate theory, Einstein’s Static (or Stationary) Universe, Phlogiston Theory, etc. These were scientific theories thought to be objective but were later falsified. Therefore, universal objectivity is more of a wish in science and religion.

Hence, as we discuss other people’s faith, it’s always important to understand that ours make sense to us because we were given the grace to share in them. Furthermore, we should never forget that faith is a supernatural gift, not a recompense for our human effort. Yet, building our faith demands an engagement with the initial experience that opened the door to the mystical experience that ushered us into the divine presence embodied in our respective religious families.

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