The Transitus ceremony annually commemorates the passing of St. Francis from earthly life to eternal life.
On the evening of Monday, October 3, 2011, mission candidates and staff members of Franciscan Mission Service attended the Transitus ceremony at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America in Washington, D.C. The event included a gathering inside of the Memorial Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a candlelight procession, a gathering around the Portiuncula church and the sharing of bread, followed by refreshments.
During the ceremony, FMS Executive Director Kim Smolik gave the following reflection:
“Thank you, Fr. Jacob. I am incredibly grateful to be here tonight.
I am also humbled. Once I said yes to the invitation to be here, I was, and still am, faced with the question: ‘What can I possibly say that will give new insight into Francis’ life and passing?’
I am not a religious or secular Franciscan. I am not a Franciscan scholar or theologian. But what I can offer is myself and my reflections as a lay person whose life has been, in a short time, deeply impacted and forever altered by the Franciscan charism and the Franciscan community that surrounds me.
The way we remember Francis on this evening has less to do with looking into the distant past and dimly recalling the life of someone who lived 800 years ago. We commemorate him in our lives in a similar way to how the Eucharistic liturgy commemorates Jesus’ Paschal sacrifice.
In the Mass, we believe that offering is made present each time, as truly and vividly as it was made present on the night Jesus gave his body and blood to his closest friends and followers. I am convinced from my own interactions with Franciscans and those committed to a life inspired by Francis, that you make Francis present today by living as intensely as he did. You ‘re-member’ him in the sense of being his members, his hands and feet and eyes in the world. And I think he would feel at home if he were here with us tonight, and if he could hear some of your stories of ministry and community life you embody.
On this evening of the Transitus, we’ve come together to reflect on how Francis’ life was like a grain of wheat that fell to the ground and sprouted and yielded a rich harvest. The abundance of that harvest is very evident to me. In my role as Executive Director of Franciscan Mission Service, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with Franciscans over the past three years.
There has never been a moment when I have had to ask myself whether what I am doing is meaningful. The meaning is always right there looking at me, in the faces of the people I meet and interact with. These faces are Franciscans from literally every part of the family that join us as partners in prayer, mission service, teachers and spiritual guides, as well the lay missioners who serve overseas with our organization.
In preparation for this evening, I spent time reflecting on what it is that has most impacted me in my adoption process into the Franciscan Family. This came to me without much effort, in a neat little package of alliteration, so allow me if you will:
Living a Franciscan life means being a Reconciler, being Relevant, being Radical, being Relational.
I would like to begin by telling you a story about a reconciler. This comes from a conversation I had just a few weeks ago, so it’s fresh in my mind. I took a month-long trip to Kenya and Zambia. I was there to establish a new mission site in Kenya, and visit our missioners serving in Zambia.
In Nairobi, I met a friar by the name of Joe Erhrardt. Some of you may know him, as he was originally a Holy Name Province friar. He’s from the US but has been a missioner most of his life. I spent a week traveling with him all over Kenya. Part of journey took us to a very rural area called Subukia, where Fr. Joe served there for 27 years.
It’s so remote that there is no hospital to go to if you are gravely ill. If you’re in trouble, there are no police to call. The roads are so rough they are often impassable in the rainy season. But now, thanks to the Franciscans serving there, there are services like a clinic, a parish and other forms of outreach.
Fr. Joe shared a story with me about an evening in Subukia when he was in the living room of the friary reading and three armed men broke with guns. They charged in, pointed their guns in his face, and demanded money.
Now Joe is one of the most humble, unassuming people I have ever met. However, he is over 6 feet tall so his presence can be intimidating. He calmly rose to his feet and said to the intruders, ‘Welcome, peace be with you.’
As you can imagine, the three men were taken aback. They said, ‘What? Why are you saying this to us?’
Joe responded, ‘We are brothers, are we not? We are from the same community. You are welcome here.’
In the end, the men took only the equivalent of $8, though Joe offered them more. They did not hurt anyone, and they never returned again.
This is a story I think St. Francis would rejoice over. What I like to think about is, “What made it possible for Fr. Joe to be a loving presence even to these men who broke in to rob him?”
Without a doubt, it was his deep and centered prayer life. He had internalized the poverty of Francis and the poverty of Christ to the point that he looked at those men and saw not criminals, but brothers in need. And because he not only saw them but called them brothers, the encounter became almost an encounter of reconciliation, rather than one of hostility. Fr. Joe communicated his love in such a powerful and effective way that it broke down the wall of hatred they thought was there.
This is a simple story. But the forms of simplicity to which Francis invites us – being quiet, prayer, retreat, poverty, community, service – are without question some of the most arduous places to journey.
I have come to learn that what is simple in the Christian sense – what brings us freedom and reconciliation – is not the same as what is easy. Thomas Merton also put it well when he said that the spiritual life is not necessarily complicated, but it is difficult.
I started by saying that Francis’ passing was a grain of wheat that sprouted a rich harvest. When I look at the quality of the Franciscan lives and ministries I know, I can say that the harvest is rich indeed. But we do need more laborers to send out.
This is what Franciscan Mission Service is all about. We want to scatter the seeds of Franciscan ministry and spirituality as widely as possible among the laity. There is a lot of fertile ground out there. We have seen that lay men and women of all ages have a strong desire to serve, motivated by their faith, and to live lives of simplicity in solidarity with the poor.
We are very committed to building bridges between Franciscan religious and lay people – so that more lay people can have experiences like my own – learning from Franciscan religious who have been serving faithfully for years.. We are committed to showing lay Catholics that Franciscan ministry is relevant to what they are seeking, and relevant to the society at large, and here we arrive at our second R.
To find out what is relevant to Christians today, we have to ask what they are looking for. I know that many lay Catholics are seeking a simpler life and deeper intimacy with God, but they aren’t sure how to get there. I have found that people seem to have one of two minds regarding this goal, particularly young adults whom we often work with. They have either chosen a life of action and service — this includes those who gravitate toward Catholic Social Teaching, OR they tend to focus on having a more traditional spiritual existence — those individuals who focus on the sacraments and a prayer life.
I mentioned that in Kenya, Fr. Joe’s deep prayer life made it possible for him to disarm his aggressors with just a few words. When I meet our new prospective lay missioners at FMS, I see that their own exposure to prayer is sometimes limited, as mine was when I was a young adult.
Looking back, I realize now that I did not grow up learning how to be quiet before God. I learned how to talk TO God (which also has value). I went through years of catechism and Catholic school. I worked at Catholic Youth Camps. Yet not once do I remember practicing listening before God, silencing myself for any extended period of time.
And it is often the case that our lay missioners have very little experience with silent prayer, walking the labyrinth, lectio divina, centering prayer — forms of prayer given to us in our own Catholic tradition.
I once heard a student ask a wise teacher: ‘Isn’t spiritual development about cultivating the Spirit within us?’
The teacher answered, “The Spirit already dwells within us, we cannot cultivate it. What we can cultivate is intimacy with the Spirit so that we actually know how special and how luminous, and how creative, loving and present the Spirit is.”
Often, it is when FMS lay missioners enter into deep poverty that they really begin to cultivate intimacy with the Holy Spirit. And when they go on mission, they do enter into poverty. It’s there all around them, day and night. Most of our missioners have a story of a turning point, or a low point, when they realize their inability to go at it alone.
A missioner once said to me, ‘I was at my wits end. I did everything I thought was right, but I was exhausted and I saw no progress. One morning, I had nothing left to give: I simply fell to the ground in the middle of a chaotic, poverty stricken neighborhood, ready to give up. But once I stopped, and sat still, I allowed myself to consciously breathe, and to release control.
It was then that I saw for the first time what was always there — scenes of hope –children contently playing and laughing, not with toys, but with sticks and strings; people working together to repair their houses, a young couple holding hands and smiling. In was in that moment that I had allowed God’s vision to enter my heart.
Francis provided a consistent example of cultivating intimacy with the Holy Spirit: he regularly took refuge in hermitages where he entered into contemplative prayer – It was in the hermitages that Francis found his source of strength for the active ministry life he led.
This active ministry is the other side of the coin that makes the Franciscan movement so relevant. Franciscans are ‘on the ground’ and walking side by side with people in their daily lives. The Franciscan commitment to ‘justice, peace and integrity of creation’ requires us to be able to ‘read the signs of the times’ and respond accordingly.
It means we should be able to pick up the newspaper and not just say, “There is poverty in this city – with our only response being to create ministries of charity. We must also say, “Why is there poverty in the city, and what can we do end this cycle?”
The Franciscan ministries I have witnessed in the United States and around the world are relevant because they are dynamic — meaning not static. They are Relevant because they change with the needs of the people as well as with shifting social and political conditions.
We know Francis did not separate himself from others as only a ‘church man’ — he intervened in conflicts happening in the church and between the church, the government and the private sector. He was relevant because he went directly to where the greatest needs were and he offered an alternative solution.
And sometimes these ways of Francis’ were seen as radical. And here we arrive at our third of the four ‘Rs’, about Franciscan radicalism. At FMS we see how much our lay missioners take on the Gospel radicalism that Francis practiced – not only while on mission, but in a more permanent sense after they return home. Their dependence on God and the close ties they have formed with people in poor communities lead them to re-evaluate their relationship with material things.
I saw evidence of this in a conversation I had with a returning missioner two years ago. We conducted a three-week re-entry program for missioners coming back to the U.S. – a time for them to process their mission experience as they begin the difficult process of readjusting to life in this country.
As they were spending their days in prayer and reflection with our program staff, some of us were busy preparing the building for guests who would be coming to an open house in their honor.
For example, we bought large picture frames for photos that showed scenes of each missioner’s experience overseas, as a way of helping them tell their story to our guests. At this time we also happened to be putting up new window blinds throughout the building, because many windows were without proper coverage.
If you have been to FMS (and you are all welcome to come by anytime, by the way), you know that it is a very simple, humble place, but the changes we were making were being noticed.
While we were doing all of this, one of the returned missioners asked to meet with me. We sat down to talk and she told me she was troubled by our decision to spend money on window blinds and picture frames. They didn’t seem essential to her. Only three weeks earlier, she had been working in an extremely poor community in Bolivia. In her mind, she saw each $10 picture frame as a week’s worth of food for a family she cared about.
This kind of radicalism is surely one of Francis’ most precious legacies. While the framed photos have come to provide a valuable tool in sharing and promoting our ministry, we continue to make sure that we make the most of them. We value and welcome this radical perspective among us. We challenge ourselves to ask similar questions and allow our missioners stories to keep us closely connected to the reality of poverty and suffering. We have also become vigilant about seeking recycled and donated products that we need. Even our smallest actions and choices have implications.
Franciscan radicalism has to do with encountering and entering into solidarity with ‘the other’ – the other being those who are different than us, those we might not understand, or in the case of Francis’s encounter with the Leper – even people who repulse or irritate or seem less than us.
It is very encouraging to me when I see our lay missioners take up this challenge. Here I think of what one of our current missioners in the field, Tim Marcy, wrote earlier this year about his ministry in South Africa:
‘I’m working with and for people of a vastly different culture, mostly the poor, the dying, and those suffering from HIV/AIDS, and in less than ideal circumstances, – and yet somehow I’m happy from morning to bedtime; I’m living in a quiet kind of joy each day the whole day long.’
Here, radicalism meets joy, which is certainly how it was for Francis.
However, being radical does not mean an inability to be Relational or relatable, our final R.
I witness regularly the ease with which our lay missioners form lasting relationships with the Franciscans who teach in our program. I can point to their humility, life of penance, and genuine desire to spend time with and get to know our missioners as sure reasons.
I also think the Franciscan ability to be relatable and, in turn relational, has something to do with how Franciscan see God. This past May I made a pilgrimage to Assisi. It was a study pilgrimage, led by two great Franciscan scholars.
In one of our lectures, Jean-François Godet said to us, ‘Francis doesn’t criticize or call things bad, instead he gives examples of good. I have learned that this comes from Francis’ understanding of God as a fount of overflowing goodness, and so the nature of all created things is good. In the Franciscan tradition, our purpose then is to return that good back to God. This is core to our identity.
Starting from a place of goodness (and love) is a very good place to start indeed. And sharing this view of God is certainly an invitation, a way of saying ‘Come in, all are welcome, YOU are welcome.’
I don’t think we should underestimate the freedom that this view of God can offer Catholics and how it has contributed to the growth of the Franciscan movement. I know that when I heard it expressed verbally and theologically, after years of knowing it in my heart, I knew I had found a spiritual home.
St. Francis wanted to renew the Church. My involvement with Franciscans has renewed and deepened my sense of belonging to the Church.
I’ve spoken about aspects of the Franciscan charism that you are all very familiar with: reconciliation, relevancy to society, radical solidarity poor, a relational presence.
What I hope I have contributed are some insights drawn from my experiences on how the Franciscan movement impacts the laity. I have seen again and again that there is a yearning for what you, vowed Franciscans and those committed to a life inspired by Francis, have to share with the laity in the Church. I hope we are all inspired to continue to seek ways to share this tradition more widely.
As I end tonight, I know it is common to remind ourselves during this ritual of the blessing Francis bestowed upon his followers near the end of his life when he said, ‘I have done what is mine to do, may Christ inspire you to do what is yours.’
Francis lived his life motivated by his deep love for Christ.
He was a reconciler, loving his enemies, because he knew the love of Christ.
He was relevant to the poor and outcast because he knew the love of Christ.
He was radical in his desire to renew the church and society, because he knew the love Christ.
He was relational, honoring all of God’s creation, because he knew the love of Christ.
The grain of wheat that I believe Francis most desired to see grow and bear fruit was for each of us to find our way to love and know the love of Christ as deeply as he did, and from there, our lives would produce a rich harvest.
I am grateful for the ‘field’ that you as Franciscans provide for me and for many other lay people to be inspired by and be contributors to this harvest of good. I pray we will continue on this journey together.”