The Transitus: St. Francis Embraces Sister Death

It is that time of year again when the Franciscan family throughout the world pauses to celebrate the solemnity of our Holy Father Francis’s Transitus, passing over from this life to the next. In his famous Canticle of the Creatures, the saint from Assisi wrote “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape.” That line, written near Francis’s own embrace of Sister Bodily Death, reflects the importance and natural character of death in the life of all creation. Francis was not afraid of what would come at the end of his earthly life, choosing instead to recognize in that experience, not an end, but a transition from one way of living to another.

My Franciscan brother, Daniel Grigassy, OFM, in an article that first appeared in the Franciscan journal of spirituality The Cord, wrote:

Each year on the third evening of October, we ritually remember the passing of Francis of Assisi from this life into God. In fact, the Transitus has become a significant and even a necessary annual event. To ritually revisit the story of Francis’ passing is vital; without it something significant is missing. It specifies the living memory of Francis; it intensifies our commitment to follow Christ in the way of the poor man of Assisi.

Of the several recollections and written accounts of the death of St. Francis, the Major Legend of St. Francis by St. Bonaventure recalls that Francis requested his brothers read the Gospel passage from the Mass of the Last Supper, Holy Thursday. This reading from the Gospel according to John provided a glimpse into the Vita Evangelica — the Gospel Life — that the little poor man from Assisi sought to live, and which we his spiritual heirs have inherited.

At the heart of the reading stands the example of so-called servant leadership modeled by Jesus Christ Himself.

Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel.  Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.  He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”  Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.”  Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.”  Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”  Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not all of you.”  For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “You are not all clean.”

When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you as example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.  If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:1-17).

On this day that we celebrate Francis’s Transitus, may we be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead us on the path of more authentically living the Vita Evangelica after the model of St. Francis. His spirit continues to live on in the lives of his spiritual sons and daughters in faith, may this remembrance help shape our vision of the world, of ministry to one another and, ultimately, of our own inevitable transitus from this life to the next.

Photo: Carivaggio, “Francis in Ecstasy”

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