Like Christmas and Easter for all Christians, the Transitus and Feast of Saint Francis are two holidays that are treated with the greatest reverence by all Franciscans. Around the world, the number of Franciscans in all three types of orders is in the hundreds of thousands (the order I am joining, O.F.M., is somewhere between 12 and 13 thousand, with the Secular Franciscans at about 400,000.) For many, the specifics of the celebration ranges greatly from community to community, but the purpose is the same: commemorate the life and death of our Seraphic father. In this case, our community celebrated with the Capuchin friars, Poor Clare sisters, and two other groups of Franciscan sisters that I unfortunately did not get a chance to meet.
Our celebration began October 3 with the Transitus, or the transition of Francis from this life to the next. In the chapel, the lights were dimmed, and placed in the middle of the floor was a habit surrounded by candles. Structured like the Palm Sunday Gospel in which a number of people took parts, i.e. “Francis” or “Leader,” we recreated the last moments of his life in order to share in his transition. At first, it felt very mournful, and I was overcome by a feeling of sadness and despair over the death of a great saint. What surprised me was how, despite the solemn atmosphere, the ceremony was filled with hope and joy, happiness and celebration. Here’s a section that I found particularly profound:
Narrator: On another occasion, when he felt that his end was not so far away, Francis once more asked his brothers to sing to him the Canticle of the Sun. And this time when they came to the end, Francis added still another verse–the praise of Sister Death.
Francis: Praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed be those whom death will find in Your most holy will.
All: Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks, and serve Him with great humility.
Francis lived his life up until his last breath as if he had never gotten over the fact that God loved him. He was always experiencing God in different ways, and like a loyal dog, treated everything like it was the most incredible experience yet. He was not saddened by death, but rather, welcomes it as the long awaited entrance into heaven. Simply beautiful. In recreating his final acts, we shared bread (not mass) and made for each other a sign of peace before concluding in joyful song.
Following the Transitus was the full celebration of the Feast of St. Francis on October 4. Including the blessing of the animals, a commemorative mass, and huge feast, we come together once more as a large Franciscan community to look more broadly on the life of the great saint and celebrate the life of our own communities. It was a wonderful experience, to which we certainly did not forget the feast aspect! After mass, the many communities of Franciscans came together for a spectacular meal and fellowship in the spirit of Francis. All in all, it was a joyful experience and a confirmation of my call to follow Francis’ way to Jesus.