Make a pilgrimage to Colorado’s first shrine for victims of human trafficking

Guardian Angels Parish carries mission with St. Josephine Bakhita’s intercession

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It’s a reality.

On any given day during 2016, an estimate of 403,000 people were living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States, according to the 2018 Global Slavery Index. This evil that so many times seems foreign, also exists in America, and it may be much more common than many believed — ranging from forced labor to forced sexual exploitation of adults and children.

Nonetheless, where darkness is present, the light of prayer and charity can make a true difference.

Catholics in northern Colorado can now make an impact by making a pilgrimage to Guardian Angels Parish in Mead — located nearly 35 miles north of Denver on I-25 — which Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila designated as a shrine for victims of human trafficking in January 2018.

It all began with the devotion to St. Josephine Bakhita that Father Alan Hartway, CPPS, initiated even before he became pastor of the parish.

“Even when I started coming to the parish as a substitute priest in the early 2000s, I began to emphasize [the meaning of] hospitality to [our parishioners], and how important that was, as the forefront ministry of evangelization parishes,” he recounted. “So, I introduced them to St. Josephine Bakhita because she is also the patron saint of hospitality ministry —that was her work.”

The Sudanese-born saint was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. After being sold several times, she arrived in Italy, and was gifted to a family that gave her nursemaid duties.

The future saint would accompany the girl she cared for to catechism classes in Venice, where she met the Canossian Sisters and later decided to join the Church, adopting the name Josephine.

After refusing to return to Africa with the family that claimed rights over her, the Canossian Sisters testified on her behalf before a judge, who eventually ruled she was free, since slavery was illegal in Italy.

Bakhita joined the religious order, where she carried out her duties of cooking, sewing and welcoming guests, eventually becoming very loved by children and visitors.

“When we built our new Church, I requested from Archbishop Aquila that we have [St. Josephine’s] relic in our altar, and when we secured the relic from the Canossian Sisters, in that same letter he designated this [parish] as a shrine for victims of human trafficking. So, he challenged the parish to have a hospitality [that goes] very deep,” Father Hartway said.

MEAD, CO, Jan. 1, 2018: Guardian Angels Parish celebrates a dedication Mass of their newly built parish center with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. (Photo by Jason Weinrich | Denver Catholic)

While the parish community is still developing its mission, Father Hartway hopes to begin contributing to this cause by educating people on the reality of modern slavery, praying for the victims and welcoming people how they deserve to be welcomed.

“The first step is familiarizing people with [St. Josephine Bakhita’s] story. The plan is to build on that gradually and develop the full meaning of our shrine… We have started by praying [for the victims] and honoring her feast day Feb. 8. We have a nine-day novena beginning Jan. 31, expose her relic and icon during the novena and nine more days after that, and have named our parish hall the Bakhita Hall,” he said.

“We also want to help people realize the effect of human trafficking and modern slavery in the modern world, and to make people conscious — to provide a way for them to be generous to these kinds of causes. It also opens their hearts to hospitality to everyone… something we take seriously here. When people come here on pilgrimage, we would show them the hospitality maybe they’ve never had in their lives.”

Christians have observed the tradition of making pilgrimages to sacred sites since the first centuries of Christianity, when they would visit the tombs of the apostles and martyrs, and the Holy Land.

More than sightseeing, however, pilgrimages are deep and transformative spiritual journeys, which were even popular acts of sacrifice and penance for grave sins during the Middle Ages.

People can go on pilgrimage to ask for special intentions or causes to the patron saint of a specific shrine or sacred place.

St. Josephine Bakhita’s first-class relic is exposed during 18 days, beginning with the novena that leads up to hear fest day Feb. 8. (Photo provided)

The faithful in Colorado will now be able to make a pilgrimage to Guardian Angels Parish and ask for St. Bakhita’s intercession for the victims of human trafficking and their own special intentions.

“We welcome everyone, regardless of their language, their color, their race, etc.,” Father Hartway said, calling to mind that many victims of human trafficking in the United States are people from other countries who are forced to work in inhumane conditions, under domestic servitude, or at times are even exploited by the pornography industry.

“Migrants, and especially migrant women and children, are particularly vulnerable to modern slavery in the United States due to their ‘low level of education, inability to speak English, immigration status, and lack of familiarity with the U.S. employment protections,’” the 2018 Global Slavery Index attests.

Children, and particularly those who are or have been in the child welfare system, are also particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Amid this reality, the parish community at Guardian Angels Parish in Mead hopes to shine a light for victims of human trafficking by reflecting the spirit of the saint who, even after suffering the endless pains of slavery, was able to say, “The Lord has loved me so much: We must love everyone.”

COMING UP: Art: A needed sacrament of faith

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A sacrament is an outward, material sign of an inward, spiritual reality. The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Jesus to communicate his grace to us. In addition, we have sacramentals, signs and practices that draw us more deeply into our faith. We do not have an abstract faith; it is sacramental and incarnational, centered on the coming into the flesh of the Son of God and his continued presence in the Church through the Eucharist.
Art, following this sacramental identity, expresses our faith, draws us into prayer, and mediates divine realities. In a time of relativism, which shuns proposals of truth and goodness, we need to rely more upon the witness of beauty. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this opportunity and need: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

Does this approach actually work for evangelization? Elizabeth Lev details one example, the crucial role of art at a time of crisis in the Church, in her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia, 2018). As core Catholic doctrines faced opposition from Protestants, the Council of Trent called for the creation of art to assist in renewal. The Council said that art should instruct, help to remember and meditate divine realities, admonish, provide examples, and to inspire the faithful to order their lives in imitation of the saints (4). Lev adds her own synthesis of how art assists the Church, asserting that “art is useful in evangelization…. can bring clarity…. [and] is uplifting” (6). The Catholic Reformation and Baroque periods, particularly in central Italy, were ages “of unprecedented art patronage from the top down, effectively a very expensive PR campaign meant to awaken the hearts and minds of millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Eternal City” (5).

And it worked. It was not art for art’s sake that led Catholics to stay true to the faith, but art’s ability to express the deep spiritual vision of the Church as articulated by the great Catholic reformers. Lev lists the main protagonists of this cooperative work:  “The spiritual insight of Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, Federico Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and Paleotti fused with the creative talents of Caravaggio, Barocci, the Carracci School, Lavinia Fontana, and Guido Reni, making for a heady cocktail designed to entice the faithful into experiencing mystery” (16). Lev provides a masterful overview of the key theological issues at stake and how artists were commissioned to visualize the faith in these areas, including the sacraments, mediation of the saints, purgatory, and practices such as pilgrimage.

Developments in technique enabled art to come alive, actively mediating faith, by using theatrical characteristics that invited the viewer into the drama of the scene. Altar pieces beckoned down to the action of the altar, pointing to the reality occurring there, such as Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (37), and others drew the viewer into the scene, as with Frederico Barocci’s extended hand of St. Francis bearing the stigmata, inviting an imitation of Christ (145). Other paintings inspired religious sentiments such as contrition, as found in Reni’s St. Peter Penitent, who models how to weep for one’s sins and to beat one’s chest in repentance (45), and Titian’s good thief who reaches out to Christ as one would do in confession (52). The book beautifully presents the artwork, and Lev seamlessly combines art criticism and religious commentary.

The time period of Lev’s book bears some striking similarities to contemporary struggles. Many Catholics continue to question the faith, and we have experienced a return to iconoclasm in the last fifty years, bent on the destruction of the Church’s sacramental vision. We, too, need the inspiration of art, which calls us to renew our faith: “Art no longer allow[s] the viewer to stand at a safe distance, as a passive recipient of grace, but exhort[s] everyone to act” (180). For the success of the New Evangelization, we need a return to beauty. This will require us to invest in a renaissance of the arts, knowing that this investment will support the Church’s efforts to communicate the truth of our faith, for the salvation of souls.