Today is Emancipation Day, marking the day in 1834 on which the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect, ending slavery across the British Empire. The Act led to the freedom of over 800,000 enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean, Africa, South America, and Canada. In British North America, the Act led to partial liberation, as it freed only children under the age of six, while others continued serving their former owners for years as apprentices. Yet, the Act confirmed Canada as a free territory for enslaved African Americans, thousands of whom found their freedom in Canada between 1834 and the early 1860s.
While many Christians, including members of the clergy, participated in this dehumanizing industry, the Catholic tradition of opposition to unjust servitude eventually helped end the enslavement of Black and Indigenous Peoples. From 1435 to 1890, several popes, including Eugene IV (“Sicut Dudum,” 1435), Pius II, Paul III (“Sublimis Deus,” 1537), Gregory XVI (“In Supremo,” 1839), Urban VIII, Innocent XI, Benedict XIV, and Pius VII, issued bulls and encyclicals condemning both slavery and the slave trade. This teaching was grounded in the knowledge that God the Father infinitely loves all people, and they receive from Him the vocation to redemption and eternal happiness through Christ the Son.
Father François Kibwenge, Episcopal Vicar of the Francophone sector of the Archdiocese of Ottawa-Cornwall, offers the following thought: “The reminder of this day of August 1 relating to the abolition of slavery, a human drama due to ignorance, on the one hand and, on the other hand, to the entitlement of certain people considering themselves superior and others inferior – benefiting from the tacit complicity of the Church of the time – must make us vigilant so that other forms of exploitation and degrading treatment of humans are not tolerated.”
Let us pray, then, as did Pope Francis in 2018, to the patron saint of human-trafficking survivors:
“Saint Josephine Bakhita, you were sold into slavery as a child and endured unspeakable hardship and suffering. Once liberated from your physical enslavement, you found true redemption in your encounter with Christ and his Church. O Saint Josephine Bakhita, assist all those who are entrapped in slavery; intercede on their behalf with the God of Mercy so that the chains of their captivity will be broken. May God himself free all those who have been threatened, wounded or mistreated by the trade and trafficking of human beings. Bring comfort to survivors of this slavery and teach them to look to Jesus as an example of hope and faith so that they may find healing from their wounds. We ask you to pray for us and to intercede on behalf of us all: that we may not fall into indifference, that we may open our eyes and be able to see the misery and wounds of our many brothers and sisters deprived of their dignity and their freedom, and hear their cry for help. Amen.”
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