Pope Francis and “Joy’s story”: faith saves from despair

In the preface to Mariapia Bonanate’s book “Io sono Joy” (I am Joy), Pope Francis retraces the intense testimony of a Nigerian girl who lands in Italy after a dramatic journey of hope. The young woman is saved thanks to her faith in God and her encounter with a welcoming community in Caserta, Italy. The book will be in bookstores from January 27.

By Francesca Merlo

Opening his preface to the book, Pope Francis notes that his intent is to deliver Joy’s testimony as a “heritage of humanity”.

The book recounts the story of Joy, a young woman who came from Nigeria, and “experienced a second birth in Italy”.

Her journey to Italy was an arduous one, and she became victim of a huge number of some of the injustices migrants face in their travels every single day. From crossing the desert, to being detained in camps in Libya, to surviving a shipwreck – all, unbeknownst to her – in the hands of human traffickers. Pope Francis defines her journey as her Via Crucis

The simplicity of the “autobiographical and choral” witness, with which she tells her story “gives voice to God,” writes the Pope. In fact, he adds, God is by her side, in every detail of her chronicle “like a hidden protagonist, silent, but not for this reason inert in the events narrated.”

“Joy’s story is one that unites many other people, like her, trapped in an infernal chain and struck by the tragedy of invisibile trafficking. A story as unknown as it is sinisterly omnipresent in our globalised societies”, writes the Pope.

Joy’s arrival in Italy

Pope Francis continues writing that it was only after crossing the world that Joy discovered she had been deceived and had fallen into the hands of human traffickers.

“These paths of dehumanisation seem to present a constant in their ‘genesis’, in the way they begin: being forced to leave one’s country of origin, to go and populate the peripheries of large cities. Lost in anonymity, these ‘invisible people’ progressively lose those points of reference that anchor them to their own culture.”

This is still the case today for many families, says the Pope, and this is exactly what happened to Joy and to her friends. 

Trafficking today

According to figures from the International Labour Organization (ILO), an estimated 40.3 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery. 24.9 million are exploited for labour, and 15.4 million forced into marriage.

There are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world. One of the many forms of exploitation into which people can be trafficked and held in slavery is sexual exploitation, to which Joy fell victim. 

“At this point I can’t help but ask the reader a question: since there are countless young women, victims of trafficking, who end up on the streets of our cities, how much does this reprehensible reality stem from the fact that many men, here, demand these ‘services’ and show themselves willing to buy another person, annihilating her inalienable dignity?” says the Pope.

In reading this memoir, he continues, we discover how Joy’s testimony nails us before the prejudices and responsibilities that make us conniving actors in these events. We must put ourselves at Joy’s side and stop with her in her “places” of helpless and innocent pain, he says. “After being there, it will be impossible to remain indifferent when we hear about the boats adrift, ignored and even rejected from our shores. Joy was on one of them”.  

What truly is real?

Pope Francis continues by noting that “on her path to freedom, Joy points us to two fundamental realities.” The first, he says, is “faith in God that saves from despair.” The second, he continues, is “community”. He explains that “Joy began her rebirth” when she was welcomed by the “Casa Rut” community in Caserta, Italy. The Pope explains that a home can only “bear the beautiful name of “community” when it is capable of welcoming, protecting, integrating and promoting every life within its bosom.”

Joy helps all of us to open our eyes, “to know in order to understand better,” he continues. “It is often they, the victims of the most heinous abuses, who are an inexhaustible source of support for new victims. Their memories prove to be a crucial information resource in order to save other young people in the same condition.”

Before ending his preface, Pope Francis expresses his thanks “to all those individuals and organizations who, even at the cost of their own safety, come to the aid of the victims of modern-day slavery.” With their untiring dedication, he adds, “they restore self-worth to those who have been deprived of personal dignity; they restore trust and hope in the lives of those who have been deceived and have experienced the imposition of terror by those who, after presenting themselves as saviors, have revealed themselves as executioners.”

To Joy

Pope Francis’ final words of the preface are addressed directly to Joy herself:

“Your name is Joy, you have been your mother’s joy from the womb, and so you received from her this beautiful name which is also one of God’s proper names. You are Joy, similar to so many women whose story we are telling today, but above all, you ‘are Joy’: unique, desired, and much loved.

“Thank you for giving us the opportunity to join in your experience of absolute courage that allows us to better understand those who suffer from trafficking.

“Dearest Joy, as you write in these pages: ‘only love, which nurtures peace, dialogue, acceptance and mutual respect, can guarantee the survival of our planet.’ So, I recommend: ‘Courage, study and do not be afraid.’ Bravo, keep going!”