A Missionary in Sudan, and Her Saint

Interview With Canossian Sister Severina Motta

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ROME, MARCH 28, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Sister Severina Motta is a Canossian Missionary who has spent more than 40 years in Africa. For more than a dozen of those years, she’s been in Sudan, where she came to know “her saint,” St. Bakhita.

Bakhita is Sudan’s first saint, and has grown in international fame particularly since Benedict XVI mentioned her in his encyclical “Spe Salvi.”

She is also the inspiration for the conversion of a death row inmate in Oregon, who has started a project to support the Canossians.

In this interview with the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, Sister Severina tells of her own missionary calling and the saint who has taught the Sudanese how to prevail over their enemies.

Q: Did you always have a desire to be a missionary sister?

Sister Severina: I have always wished to be a sister but not at all a missionary.

Q: You wanted to be a sister here?

Sister Severina: I wanted to be a sister in Italy. I went through a very great struggle. I gave in when I thought it was really Jesus demanding of me to go among the youth who had nobody to take care of them.

Q: What was the moment when you said, “Yes, Lord, I’ll go”?

Sister Severina: Well, it was a special moment of prayer in the novitiate. In the chapel there is a big crucifix pointing to some sheep and under the picture were the words: “Euntes in Universum Mundum” — Go out to the whole world. The finger seemed to point to me, that it was my turn to go and join the missionaries. That is why I gave in. It was a very hard experience, but I must say it was a very rewarding one.

Q: And you wouldn’t have done anything different now looking back on your life?

Sister Severina: No, I would do the same thing again.

Q: Why did you choose Africa?

Sister Severina: Actually I didn’t choose Africa. We go where we are sent, but after I said yes to the Lord, my greatest wish was to be among the poorest, to share their life and work with them to find means and ways to improve it. I must say I was really rewarded because of all the places I have been, all the essentials of life were missing. No means of communication, no proper roads, no drinkable water, no electricity, only the richness of the people.

Q: I want to talk a little bit about Sister Bakhita, St. Bakhita now, who in the community is called “the Brown Mother.”

Sister Severina: Yes, Bakhita was a girl from Darfur, Sudan, who at the age of 7 was kidnapped and was sold as a slave. But she did not accept the situation. With another little girl she escaped, but she was caught and resold and this situation repeated itself five times. She passed from a bad master to a worse one, until she fell in the hands of a very cruel Turkish officer. This man gave her 114 deep cuts on her body and rubbed salt in them, which left her in agony for weeks. After this she was bought by the Italian consul of Khartoum and taken to his country. He gave her as a babysitter to his friend’s wife. Now in Italy, Bakhita found not only freedom, she found respect and love, but above all she discovered God. Later on she was baptized and she asked to enter into our congregation. In our congregation, where she died in 1947 in Schio, she lived a very simple life, but a life of goodness, meekness, kindness and a deep spirituality. Pope John Paul II recognized her as a saint on Oct. 1, 2000.

Q: St. Bakhita has touched the lives of people all around the world. I have heard a story about an American prisoner on death row who was converted by St. Bakhita. Can you tell us about this?

Sister Severina: Yes, there is a prisoner on death row in Oregon. This man was desperate, and one day he found under the door of his cell a letter from a Swiss lady who, as a hobby, finds through the Internet the names of people on death row. She writes to them to give them a bit of courage. This prisoner, Jeffrey, saw the letter and for a while didn’t bother about it, but finally he picked it up in order to throw it into the wastepaper basket. But it fell to the side. So he took it again, opened it and he read about this lady who said that she loved him and that Sr. Bakhita loved him too. He began wondering who is this Bakhita? Again at first he ignored it but he was not at peace, so he wrote to this lady asking about Bakhita. She sent him a pamphlet with the Bakhita story. He was so struck by what this girl went through, her being able to forgive and then to succeed so much in her life that bit by bit something changed in him. He asked to be baptized, and now he wants to do something for Sudan. And so from his small cell he is writing letters. He started a Sudan project in order to encourage help for the children of Sudan.

Q: I think he has written something like 600 letters?

Sister Severina: He has written more than 600 letters. He is also an artist. So he is creating artwork to sell for this purpose. He is also now helping convert the inmates and he is really very successful. This, I think is one of the greatest miracles that Sister Bakhita is working.

Q: What is the importance of St. Bakhita to the Sudanese people?

Sister Severina: St. Bakhita is, first of all, a sign and an occasion of pride for both Sudan and its people. Bakhita is the first Sudanese saint. She was a slave. She was a woman. Her fame spread worldwide; she revealed to the world the best of her people and she attracted the attention of the world to the problems and situation in Sudan.

Q: When you speak to the Sudanese people about Sister Bakhita and her forgiveness of her enemies, is this something that they can take to heart in light of all the difficulties that they have experienced in Sudan?

Sister Severina: I think so, because Bakhita is truly a Sudanese person. Sudanese love her so much because she revealed the best of her people. When I arrived in Sudan, it was a moment of terrible struggle and suffering. I myself could not cope and when I asked the people: “How can you cope with such a situation”? They would say: “Sister, don’t think that we are the crushed ones. We are the winners because we can suffer everything without seeking revenge. This interior strength we show is what wins over our own enemies.” This is the strength we find in Sister Bakhita and now in her people.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly TV & radio show produced by Catholic Radio & Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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On the Net:

Where God Weeps: www.WhereGodWeeps.org

Aid to the Church in Need: www.acn-intl.org

“Sister Bakhita: A Song of Freedom” trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiVe3S3tnuU

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