The Transitus. Illustration: Lee Kowling

Friar Joseph Nasanathan, OFM

On Oct 3, 2020, at the tomb of St Francis of Assisi and on the eve of the saint’s feast day, Pope Francis will sign his new social encyclical on human fraternity and solidarity entitled Fratelli tutti or “Brothers all” in Italian.

St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of Christianity’s most popular saints, and the order he founded, is one of the most visible and well-known, with Franciscans the world over helping the poor, and many churches marking his Oct 4 feast day with blessings of pets and others animals.

Not so well-known is the fact that the Franciscan family ritually remembers the death of their founder in a special way every year. The Transitus, which means “crossing” or “passage” in Latin, is an annual Oct 3 evening service during which they mark St Francis’ passing away from this earthly life and crossing over into eternal life with God.

 

Embracing Sister Death

The Transitus has been described as a time for the faithful to think of how they hope to die in communion with God.

In his famous Canticle of the Creatures, St Francis, embracing the inevitability of his own impending death, wrote, “Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape.”

The saint recognised that death was part and parcel of the natural order of God’s creation, so he was not afraid of it, but saw it instead as mere transition from one state of being to another, and not as an ending.

Brother Thomas of Celano, a 13th century Franciscan who authored a few biographies of the saint, wrote of St Francis’ Transitus:

“St Francis spent the last few days before his death praising the Lord and teaching his companions whom he loved so much to praise Christ with him… Even death itself, considered by all to be so terrible and hateful, was exhorted to give praise, while he himself, going joyfully to meet it, invited it to make its abode with him. ‘Welcome,’ he said, ‘my Sister Death’.”

 

Embracing the servanthood of Christ

St Bonaventure described another aspect of the Transitus.

“When the hour of his death approached, Francis asked that all of the brothers living with him be called to his death bed and softening his departure with consoling words, he encouraged them with fatherly affection to love God. He spoke of patience and poverty and of being faithful to the Holy Roman Church, giving precedence to the holy Gospels before all else. He then stretched his hands over the brothers in the form of a cross, a symbol that he loved so much, and gave his blessings to all followers, both present and absent, in the power and in the name of the Crucified.”

The Transitus has been celebrated since the 13th century, and to this day, a key part of the celebration is the reading of John 13:1-17, the Gospel passage that St Francis read aloud with his brothers on his death bed.

This reading, from the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, recounts Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It reminds all who participate to renew their commitment to live the Gospel life of humility, poverty of spirit and unconditional love that St Francis sought to live, and model Christ’s example of the servant leadership he emulated and sought to instil in his followers.

 

Embracing our crosses

St Francis shows us, through his teachings and example of courageous faith, not only how to put our trust in God and care for God’s creation with joy, but also that this present suffering will pass. This time of uncertainty and crisis around the world with the Covid-19 pandemic still dragging on, and our present suffering, is but a transition to another better time.

The feast day of St Francis and our new awareness of his Transitus is an invitation to embrace life with all its joys and sorrows and, in faith and hope, to make the prayer of St Francis before the crucifix our own:

Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out your holy and true command. Amen.

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