Human Trafficking, Love & St. Vitalis 11 Jan 2023

1st century Roman mosaic; Kunsthistorisches Museum / Public Domain

When a man dies, his life is revealed.

Call no man happy before his death,

for by how he ends a man is known.  (Sirach 11:27-28)

Human Trafficking

Prostitution sometimes hides under the phrase “the world’s oldest profession.” There’s some truth in that expression, in that the practice has been with us since the beginning of recorded history, and beyond. But only enough truth to obscure and trivialize a much deeper and uglier truth. Prostitution is not a “profession” that someone chooses for themselves like law, medicine, or selling real estate. Rather, it is a degrading form of sexual slavery. It involves buying and selling human beings, and treating them like a disposable product. The more recent name “human trafficking” hits closer to the mark.

It is a sad mark of our fallen state that, despite its evident inhumanity, there is always no shortage of customers for the trade in human flesh. Just as today (see below), there were many people in earlier times who strove to normalize prostitution. Christians who publicly denounce sexual exploitation have always done so at the risk of provoking the wrath of promoters of the Oldest Profession.

St. Vitalis, Patron of Handymen and Prostitutes

One of today’s saints, St. Vitalis of Gaza, is a good example. The Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church venerate St. Vitalis as the Patron Saint both of day laborers and of “ladies of the night.” In other words, handy-men and prostitutes.  His hagiography [Here and Here] tells us that, around 625 A.D., when he was already of advanced years, he came to Alexandria in Egypt in order to minister to the prostitutes.  His method, as described in the brief biography on, was as follows:

[A]fter obtaining the name and address of every prostitute in the city, he hired himself out as a day laborer, and took his wage to one of these women at the end of the day. He then would teach her about her dignity and value as a woman and that she did not deserve to be used by men as an object of their lust.

St. Vitalis of Gaza

He followed the same routine every day, and he succeeded in rescuing a large number of women in this way.  Many fellow Christians misunderstood his motives, however, as he insisted that the women he helped not tell anybody about his role in their conversion, or the real reason for his nocturnal visits. Presumably these women – and their handlers – only let him in because they believed he was a paying “customer.” If they knew what he really wanted, they would have barred the door . . . or worse.  

One righteously indignant young Christian, assuming the worst about Vitalis, struck him a blow to the head that resulted in his death.  Only then were the women he had helped to save able to clear his name by their testimony.  


Nothing New Under the Sun

 There are a number of compelling angles to the story of St. Vitalis.  One is that, yet again, we have confirmation that “there is nothing new under the Sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  The scourge of prostitution is still very much with us and, as St. Vitalis understood fourteen centuries ago, it is a vicious form of exploitation that not only enslaves the body but sickens the soul.  Despite the push in some quarters today to whitewash prostitution with terms like “sex workers,” it is becoming more commonly recognized for the evil it is. Hence, as we saw above, the more accurate (if still somewhat tame) heading of “human trafficking.”   

Nonetheless, prostitution is still a sad reality. In fact, it is worse and more pervasive than most of us realize.  Several years ago, I had the opportunity to hear a talk by Darlene Pawlik. Darlene is now a pro-life and anti-trafficking activist, but she was at one time an exploited teen who was first “trafficked” on her 14th birthday.  Darlene remained under the control of various traffickers, a virtual slave, for the next several years . . . all right here in United States.  A turning to Christ eventually saved her. She escaped with the help of Christians who, like St. Vitalis, made it their mission to reach out to the victims of the “sex trade.” There are in fact many groups today that similarly follow in the footsteps of St. Vitalis, both among Catholics and other Christians as well.

One Soul at a Time

Another point that stands out in the mission of St. Vitalis is his desire to save one soul at a time. He is like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable (see Luke 15:4) who leaves behind the 99 sheep to recover the one who is lost.  St. Vitalis treated each woman as an individual, and talked to her about her life, and the salvation of her own soul.  He treated each prostitute as a thinking, feeling child of God instead of an object to be used, and he was therefore able to offer real Love, as opposed to the tawdry simulacrum of love they were used to seeing.  


I can’t help but think, in a way, of St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who also insisted on treating each human being like, well, a human being. Secular leftists such as the late Christopher Hitchens criticized her for being an ineffectual sentimentalist: she should have been addressing “The Real Causes” of poverty (capitalism, inequality, etc.) instead of “merely” comforting the poorest of the poor in their distress.  

While there is certainly a place for governmental and political action, Mother Theresa understood that laws can’t save souls, and that Christ didn’t suffer and die to save us from abstractions. He didn’t sacrifice Himself to establish a perfect political or economic system. He came to save us from sin, through the great outpouring of His Divine Love on The Cross.  


The Only Thing That Can Save Us From Sin

  His Love, as it happens, is still the only thing that can save us from sin.  That’s why so many of us have come to conversion through the example of others, or because of the loving attention of a Christian who, like Christ Himself, showed an interest in us, not as a means to an end, but simply for our own good.  

Not all of us have a calling to start seeking out prostitutes, of course. As the death of St. Vitalis shows, that was and remains a risky undertaking, for a number of reasons.  We can, however, offer material assistance to those who are willing and able to take the risks (perhaps some of the groups linked above). Likewise, we can offer our prayers for their safety and success, and also for the salvation of the exploited women (and men) they seek to help.  We should certainly support appropriate laws to thwart traffickers and to help their victims.

Pray for Victims of Human Trafficking

     As always, prayer is a powerful tool available to each one of us. In this context we could ask specifically for the intercession of St. Vitalis of Gaza.  We could ask, for instance, that St. Vitalis pray for our own continued conversion and growth in holiness.  

We could also pray that he help us recognize the seriousness of sexual sin, including not only prostitution but other varieties of commercial sex such as pornography, and how permissiveness in this area can help create an environment in which a soul-killing evil like the “sex trade” can flourish.

Finally, we could ask him to intercede both for the conversion and repentance of the traffickers in human flesh, but, most especially, for the redemption, body and soul, of their victims.

St. Vitalis of Gaza, pray for us, and for all victims of human trafficking.

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