Since Vatican II and the reform of the Calender of the Saints, most monastic communities celebrate 11 July as the solemnity of St. Benedict. Before that time, 21 March was celebrated, commemorating the presumed day in 547 AD when St. Benedict died.
Why was the date changed? The celebration in July removes the solemnity from the restraints of Lent. The change also respects the primary importance of Lent as a liturgical season, the great period of conversion and catechises leading up the reception of new members into the Church at the Easter Vigil. Here at Holy Cross Abbey we celebrate 11 July as the Solemnity of St. Benedict but it’s worth recalling his passage to God’s Kingdom in March.
Transitus means just that in Latin: a passing from one state to the next. It’s not a euphemism for death but the recognition that death isn’t the end. Death, for the Christian, is a point of departure. Thus the word transitus is used to mark the death of the saints.
St. Gregory the Great, who was born within the lifetime of St. Benedict but long outlived him, being so much younger, wrote the first account of St. Benedict. He tells us that Benedict predicted his death and had his grave dug six days before he died; and that when his end came, he had himself taken to church and received communion. There he died, standing, his arms outstretched. Some later interpreters maintained that this happened at the Easter Vigil. Whatever the details are, the imagery is clear: in his death, Benedict conformed himself to the death of Christ, arms outstretched on the cross, as his hope was to rise with Christ.
It is worth noting that on 21 March, 1098, a group of Benedictine monks left the Abbey of Molesmes to start a new monastic foundation where they could live the St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries in all its simplicity and poverty, without gloss or privilege. And where they settled was in a valley known as Citeaux. They consciously chose the feast of St. Benedict to begin the new endeavor which eventually became the Cistercian Order.