In preparation for the feast of the Portiuncola on August 2, a friar describes the importance of this historic day 800 years ago, when Christ, Our Lady and angels appeared to St. Francis in the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels. The writer recalls a poignant encounter that he had at the Porziuncola (also sometimes spelled Portiuncula) within the papal basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi, Italy.
As we commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Portiuncola indulgence that Pope Honorius granted our founder, St. Francis of Assisi, several thoughts come to mind. The first concerns St. Francis and the second is about an experience that I had in Assisi, Francis’s birthplace.
His heart having been filled with the love of God and his soul flooded by the mercy of God, Francis was left speechless. How was he to ever share this grace and blessing with others? It was a gift he received freely, and Francis knew he was to share it freely with others. But how? There was no telling, no words that could ever convey so great a gift. Francis knew only too well that what he longed to express from the depths of his soul was ultimately inexpressible. When faced with such a quandary, Francis did what he always did: he prayed.
Having experienced from the hands of his mother, Pica, her tender love and merciful compassion, Francis knew instinctively what he had to do. Led by the Holy Spirit, Francis turned to Mary, the mother of God, and in prayer sought her intercession. Because Francis had such a great love and compassion for everyone, he knew that with Mary on his side, her son Jesus would never say no to any request she made of him. And so it was that Francis explained to Mary his great desire for all people to experience the grace he had received and to have the lord pope approve of his request. With his prayer ended, Francis, with the utmost confidence, made his way to the papal court.
In July of 1216, Francis and his companions received an audience with Pope Honorius III. Francis, in simple and straightforward words, made his request to the pope. Honorius listened attentively, sensed the sincerity and depth of Francis’s faith, and was moved by the sincere desire that Francis expressed for all people to be filled with God’s merciful love. With little or no hesitation, Honorius granted the petition. Francis joyfully returned to Assisi to proclaim that the Feast of the Pardon had been approved and was to be celebrated in perpetuity on August 2.
Up to this point, a plenary indulgence — the elimination of temporal punishment due to sin — could be gained by visiting one of only three churches: the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, St. Peter’s in Rome, and the shrine of Saint James the Great in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Since most Italians could not afford to travel to one of these three sites, the Portiuncola, small, simple, and insignificant, became a place where the poor and little ones of god could go to earn the plenary indulgence.
The Portiuncola was the place where Francis heard the gospel that gave impetus to his life; where he and St. Clare of Assisi shared a special meal and were enflamed with the love of God; where the friars gathered in chapter to discern God’s will for them; and where Francis would die after sundown on Oct. 3, 1226. The Portiuncola, the mother church of the Franciscan Order, is the place where the Feast of the Pardon is celebrated. This year marks the 800th anniversary of the feast.
A Poignant Conversation
A few years ago, I visited Assisi on August 2 and spent the day at the Portiuncula. While there, a well-dressed gentleman approached and asked me to tell him why there were thousands of people standing in line to enter the small church. Not quite understanding his question –it was, after all, the day of the feast of the pardon, the man readily acknowledged my puzzled expression. He then went on to share with me that he was Jewish and that several weeks earlier had spent some time praying in the small church.
While in the Portiuncola, he experienced a stirring deep within himself and knew he had to come back and spend more time in the Portiuncola. I explained to him that this was a special day for all Franciscans, the Feast of the Pardon. I went on to say to him that this was the Franciscan equivalent of Yom Kippur, the great day of atonement. He readily understood the significance of the day and proceeded to kneel on the marble floor outside the Portiuncola with his head pressed against the stone wall and entered into deep prayer oblivious to the thousands moving around him.
As Francis had desired, this day is for all God’s people. May it ever be so!
Fr. Thomas, a resident of St. Anthony of Padua Friary in Butler, N.J., is the religious assistant for the Poor Clare Nuns of Holy Name Federation. For the last 10 years, he has conducted pilgrimages to Franciscan places in Italy for friars, religious and lay, giving retreats and days of recollection on Franciscan themes. Earlier this year, he and two other HNP friars retraced the steps of St. Junípero Serra.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or another seasonal theme — are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. The newsletter’s previous reflection, about the feast of St. Bonaventure, was written by Peter Schneible, OFM.
- Letter of the General Minsters for the VIII Centenary of the Pardon of Assisi – OFM website
- Provincial Minister to Celebrate Feast of the Portiuncula on August 2 – St. Francis of Assisi Parish website
- “Pope Francis to Visit Portiuncula, Other News from Order” – July 13, 2016, HNP Today