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Pope Francis: ‘It is never too late to take action’ against human trafficking

February 8, 2024 Catholic News Agency 2
Talitha Kum members hold a sculpture of St. Josephine Bakhita in St. Peter’s Square on Feb. 6, 2022. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Feb 8, 2024 / 12:15 pm (CNA).

On the 10th International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking, Pope Francis urged people to take concrete actions to “combat this global scourge.”

“Let us help one another to be more responsive, to open our lives and hearts to our sisters and brothers who even now are being bought and sold as slaves. It is never too late to take action,” Pope Francis said in a message published Feb. 8.

“Let us pray fervently and work proactively for this cause, the defense of human dignity, whether by prayer and action as individuals and families, or as parish and religious communities, as ecclesial associations and movements, and also in the various spheres of social and political life.”

The pope’s comments came as Catholics from more than 50 countries across the world rallied together virtually as part of an online prayer marathon for the International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking.

Human trafficking is estimated to be a $150 billion industry that profits off of an estimated 49.6 million victims worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization. The U.N. agency documented a 25% increase in the number of people experiencing modern slavery between 2016 and 2021. 

Pope Francis established the International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking 10 years ago to coincide with the Feb. 8 feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of human trafficking victims.

“Together let us walk in the footsteps of St. Bakhita, the religious sister from Sudan who as a child was sold into slavery and was a victim of traffickers. Let us remember the wrong she endured, her suffering, but at the same time her strength and her journey of liberation and rebirth to a new life,” Pope Francis said.

“St. Bakhita encourages us to open our eyes and ears to see those who go unseen and to hear those  who have no voice, to acknowledge the dignity of each person and to fight trafficking and all forms of exploitation.”

St. Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869 in Sudan. Around 1877, she was kidnapped and sold into slavery by Arab slave traders. During her time as a slave, she was beaten, tortured, and scarred.

Eventually, in 1883, she was sold to the Italian vice-consul Callisto Legani, who took her with him back to Italy. While in Italy, she was given to a family and became their nanny, and that family eventually left her with the Canossian Sisters in Venice when they traveled to Sudan for business.

Once with the sisters, she learned about Christianity and decided to become Catholic. She refused to go back to the family that enslaved her once they returned to Italy, and an Italian court ruled that since slavery had been outlawed in Sudan before her birth, she was not legally a slave. She was then freed from slavery.

With her newfound freedom, Bakhita remained with the Canossians. She took the names Josephine Margaret and Fortunata, the Latin translation of her Arabic name, Bakhita. Three years later, she became a novice with the Canossian Daughters of Charity and professed her final vows on Dec. 8, 1896.

She then lived out the remainder of her life in a convent in Schio, Vicenza, working as a cook and a doorkeeper. She died on Feb. 8, 1947, and was canonized on Oct. 1, 2000, by Pope John Paul II.

Pope Francis urged people to respond to his appeal to fight human trafficking in honor of St. Josephine Bakhita, who he said “stands for all those men and women who, despite their enslavement, can still attain freedom.”

“It is a call to take action, to mobilize all our resources in combatting trafficking and restoring full dignity to those who have been its victims.”

The online prayer marathon for the world day against human trafficking is being coordinated by Talitha Kum, a network of more than 2,000 Catholic religious sisters who serve on the front lines of the fight against sex trafficking, helping survivors find healing and true freedom.

Religious sisters affiliated with Talitha Kum are present in 77 countries. Members of the network have served 10,000 trafficking survivors by accompanying them to shelters and other residential communities, engaging in international collaboration, and helping them to return home.

“From my heart, I express my gratitude to everyone engaged in the celebration of this day, and I bless all those who are committed to combatting trafficking and all forms of exploitation in order to build a world of fraternity and peace,” Pope Francis said.


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Church commission investigates Baltimore Archdiocese role in slavery

May 12, 2023 Catholic News Agency 3
A view of Baltimore’s basilica nestled amid the city’s famed row houses. / Public domain

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 12, 2023 / 14:40 pm (CNA).

A 17-member commission created by the Archdiocese of Baltimore will investigate the roles that bishops, clergy, and other prominent Catholic figures within the archdiocese played in American slavery.

The commission, which is still in its early stages, includes academics, archivists, and other researchers who are poring through old documents for information on the subject. The commission first met in March and hopes to unveil some of its findings to the public within the fall of this year. 

“It’s striking that … Catholics, clergy and lay, are people of their times and accepted the institution of slavery as just part of life in America,” Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, an auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese, told CNA. “It’s very sad to say that.”

Lewandowski said the commission is engaging in “significant research” at the moment and said the goal is to eventually make the history known to the public. Although the means by which they will unveil the information are yet to be decided, he said it could be through articles, presentations, a web page online, or something in document form.

The archdiocese will also use the material for education within churches and schools.

“[We plan to] use it, for example, at the parish level, in Catholic schools, [in the] seminary, [in] education [and] formation so the history is known,” Lewandowski said.

In addition to education, Lewandowski added that the archdiocese intends to “prayerfully reflect” on the information, and the commission will provide recommendations on “atonement and reparations” for the role of the archdiocese in slavery. 

“This is part of an ongoing process … of coming to terms with racism in the present by looking deeply in the past,” Lewandowski said. 

“We also want to engage the community … [and] evaluate the efficacy of our approaches to systemic racism in the archdiocese,” Lewandowski continued.

The idea for a commission sprang from a working group that developed into a permanent structure in the archdiocese called the Racial Justice Coordinating Council. The group, which interviewed nearly 80 people about their experiences with racism within the archdiocese, provided recommendations on racial justice. At a later date, the council requested a serious study into the archdiocese’s participation in slavery. 

“That working group came up with a significant number of recommendations for the archbishop to implement,” Lewandowski said. “And those fell into different categories: education, clergy and seminary formation, the Catholic Center and its internal workings. So, a number of different recommendations.”

Lewandowski added that the participation in slavery is part of the history of the archdiocese, and “we need to continually address it.”

“This is just part of the next phase,” the bishop said.


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Chained, not silenced: Sacred Heart professor’s book infiltrates St. Paul’s prison cell

April 30, 2022 Catholic News Agency 1
Fr. Richard Cassidy, professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, dresses in Roman prisoner garb as he holds a copy of his newest book, “A Roman Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.” Fr. Cassidy’s eighth scholarly work, the book explores the subversive nature of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which the apostle wrote from behind bars in a Roman prison cell. / Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic

Detroit, Mich., Apr 30, 2022 / 08:00 am (CNA).

It was a tough decision for Rick Cassidy as he began graduate studies at the University of Michigan in mid-1960s. Would he take the course on Imperial Rome, because of his love of history, or the course History of Slavery, because of his deep concern for social justice?

The Dearborn native chose the course on slavery. The insights he acquired have helped to guide Fr. Richard Cassidy’s scholarly work for three decades, including his latest work, “A Roman Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Herder & Herder, 2020). 

Paul’s letter, composed in chains and secreted out of his Roman jail cell, is intentionally “counter-slavery” argues Father Cassidy, professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary since 2004, as well as “counter-emperor.” At its core, Philippians is an underground epistle that subverts the Roman power structure and the “lordship pretensions of Nero.” Reviewers praise the “distinctive thesis” of Father’s groundbreaking work as “fresh and illuminating,” making for “fascinating reading.”

This is Father Cassidy’s seventh book that examines the influence of Roman rule on the writers of the New Testament, and his eighth book overall. He returned to Ann Arbor on a rainy afternoon in late June to discuss his newest work.

Dan Gallio: St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is most known for its soaring declaration of the divinity Christ, before whom one day “every knee must bend,” and “every tongue proclaim” his universal lordship (2:6-11).  

Your new book presents a unique argument: Paul’s letter is primarily a “subversive” document of resistance against the Roman Empire—particularly against emperor worship and slavery. How did you arrive at this against-the-grain interpretation?

"A Roman Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians" (Herder & Herder, 2020) is Fr. Cassidy's eighth book and a follow-up on his 2001 work, "Paul in Chains: Roman Imprisonment and the Letters of St. Paul". Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic
“A Roman Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians” (Herder & Herder, 2020) is Fr. Cassidy’s eighth book and a follow-up on his 2001 work, “Paul in Chains: Roman Imprisonment and the Letters of St. Paul”. Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic

Father Cassidy: These insights were the result of long hours with the text, spending a lot of prayer time for guidance, as to Paul’s situation.

The issue of slavery came into play strongly. I now saw that Jesus was executed as a violator of Roman sovereignty, condemned by Pilate, executed under Emperor Tiberius—and that this was the slave’s form of death. This is a crucial point.

In regards to the two topics you mention, I had the intuition that the Letter to the Philippians was “counter-emperor cult” and “counter-slavery.” First, the self emptying of Christ from on high—descending downward into human form, downward, downward to the point of the slave’s death on a Roman cross—and then you have St. Paul’s wonderful words in chapter 2, verses 9-11.

My insight was that there is going to be a redressing of what has happened. Because of the great faithfulness of Jesus Christ, the Father intervenes and begins the lifting up, the ascending of Christ, where the Father exalts Jesus and bestows upon him “the name above every other name.”

So I can now speak about this famous passage in terms of a kind of  “drama”: four scenes that represent the descent of Jesus, and four scenes that represent his ascent, akin to a medieval passion play. The Father intervenes on Christ’s behalf, conferring upon him the name of “Lord.” Now all of creation, including the emperor, the governor, the imperial personnel, are all subject to Jesus. They have to prostrate themselves before the name of Jesus.

DG: So, essentially, Philippians is subversive because it makes a political statement as much as a theological one.

FC: Yes, but for some, it is a great privilege to genuflect at the name of Jesus. This includes slaves! Paul had integrated slaves into his community in Philippi. They were empowered now to proclaim the name of Jesus, standing alongside free men and women. They are standing alongside the Roman imperial power structure, all involved in the same process of bowing before Christ and proclaiming his name.

A security guard at Sacred Heart Major Seminary helps Fr. Cassidy don his "prisoner's clothing" for a photo shoot promoting Fr. Cassidy's latest book, "A Roman Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians," which details Paul's experience behind bars and the conditions under which he wrote his Letter to the Philippians. Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic
A security guard at Sacred Heart Major Seminary helps Fr. Cassidy don his “prisoner’s clothing” for a photo shoot promoting Fr. Cassidy’s latest book, “A Roman Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” which details Paul’s experience behind bars and the conditions under which he wrote his Letter to the Philippians. Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic

And that name is “Lord.” Jesus is being acclaimed as Lord, and not the emperor, to the glory of God the Father. This is the decisive element of Philippians 2:6-11, blended together in this one passage.

DG: You provide a forty-four-page introduction to the social situation of the Roman colony of Philippi. Why did you feel such an informative but lengthy introduction was necessary to support your thesis? 

FC: I had to establish that conditions at Philippi mirror conditions at Rome. This is important. Philippi was like “Little Rome.” When Paul is speaking of conditions at Philippi, his is also experiencing the same oppressive conditions at Rome as a chained prisoner. I had to establish that emperor worship was everywhere, in Philippi’s renowned amphitheater, in the streets, in public artifacts. That is why I had to go into an extensive introduction to set the stage of what Paul is doing in his letter. 

DG: Your appendices are extensive, too, like bookends to the introduction, driving the thesis home again using illustrations.

FC: There is one illustration of a monument where slaves are chained, and a slave trader is proclaiming his prowess as a slave trader. This monument to the degradation of slavery was at a city adjacent to Philippi. Paul almost certainly passed by it on his way to and from Philippi. It was discovered back in the 1930s and almost destroyed in the war by Nazi bombings.

DG: Paul is sometimes criticized by revisionist commentators for not rejecting the institution of slavery in his letters. Is your book an answer to these critics?

FC: Paul’s approach to slavery is complicated. There are some letters where he seems to envision the imminent return of Christ. Possibly he minimized the importance of slaves being freed in these letters. However, in Philippians, his final letter before his death, he addresses the issue definitively. It is very undermining of slavery.

I intended to de-establish the idea that Paul acquiesced to slavery. He did not acquiesce. The laudatory prepublication comments by scholars make me think the book will have a decisive role in re-imaging Paul.

Against a prevailing notion that St. Paul "acquiesced" to the idea of slavery in his writings, Fr. Cassidy's book aims to counter the idea by showing how St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians actually served a subversive purpose in a Roman empire dominated by emperor worship and tight controls. Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic
Against a prevailing notion that St. Paul “acquiesced” to the idea of slavery in his writings, Fr. Cassidy’s book aims to counter the idea by showing how St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians actually served a subversive purpose in a Roman empire dominated by emperor worship and tight controls. Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic

DG: Back to Philippians 2:6-11. Why do you maintain this passage is not a hymn or baptismal catechesis, as is customarily believed, but is an original composition of Paul? Is this position another example of your counter exegesis?

FC: This is not some other preexisting hymn. No! This is fresh imaging. Visceral imaging. This is intensity from identifying with Christ as the “slave crucified.” No one else could have composed this passage. And Paul could not have composed this passage until he was in Roman chains and could see the threat posed against Jesus by the counterfeit claims that Emperor Nero is Lord.

DG: It’s almost like the passage is “supra-inspired,” that he would get such an original insight while in such dreadful circumstances.

FC: Correct. And there is a real question as to how this letter could be transmitted from prison, with the security and censorship. In garments? In pottery? It is possible the original written letter was confiscated. So how is Paul is getting his subversive thoughts past the Roman guards?

I suggest in my book that Paul was drilling his associates, Timothy and Epaphroditus, to memorize his letter, given the role of memory in early Christian life.

DG: With your busy teaching and pastoral duties, where to you find the motivation and energy to produce such a thoroughly researched, and beautifully written, work of scholarship?

FC: It’s Spirit driven!

DG: Is the Spirit driving you to another book?

FC: I would say so. After a book comes to publication, there is always a kind of mellowing period. So right now I have not identified the next project. I am appreciating the graces I have received from this book, and trusting that the same Spirit who has shepherded me through this sequence will still stand by me, guiding me forward. 

This article originally appeared in Mosaic, Sacred Heart Major Seminary’s magazine, and is reprinted at CNA with permission of the Detroit Catholic, where it was published April 20.


The Dispatch

Quo vadis, Lincoln?

February 25, 2022 Nick Olszyk 3

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