Seasonal Reflection: Encountering the Divine Presence at Portiuncula

Stephen Lynch, OFM Features

“To heal wounds, to unite what is falling apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.” Stephen Lynch, OFM, looks forward to the feast of the Portiuncula on Aug. 2 to reflect on the ministry of St. Francis.

Francis found lepers loathsome and repulsive. But one day, out of compassion, Francis embraced a leper, and discovered that the Divine Presence could be found, even where there was repulsiveness, brokenness, and unspeakable pain. This grace-filled encounter with the leper became the catalyst whereby he later voluntarily took on the life of an outcast to better mirror Christ and the Gospel values of self-emptying and self-surrender.

The Little Chapels
Two tiny, dilapidated chapels were the center of Francis’ prayer and spiritual life: the tiny Portiuncula chapel of Our Lady of the Angels loaned to Francis by the Benedictines, where Francis began the Franciscan Order; and the chapel of San Damiano. The interesting thing about Francis’ choice of his places of prayer was the fact that, during Francis’ day, both San Damiano and Our Lady of the Angels chapels were not places where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, nor was there a resident priest.

Francis loved the Portiuncula above all the other dwelling places of God because Francis intuitively sensed in a special way the indwelling of God in this humble little chapel. Because Francis believed every creature in its own way bore the image of God, he treated all with reverence, special courtesy and respect. Francis urged his friars to respond to God’s love with praise, joy and gratitude.

Vision: Repair my Church
One day as Francis was praying before the San Damiano crucifix, he had a vision of Christ speaking to him from the cross: “Francis, go and repair my church, which as you can see is falling into ruin.” Francis took the message literally and restored this church in 1206, begging for stones on the streets of Assisi. He then set about repairing old, dilapidated churches. Only later, did Francis realize that Christ was asking him to spiritually renew institutional Christianity.

The interior life of the church was in disarray, because of the corruption of power, riches, inordinate attachment to the good life, and craving for the material things of this world. The focus for St. Francis’ prayer life was the crucifix that hung over the altar of the dilapidated San Damiano chapel. Francis chose to identify with the sacrificial, crucified Jesus. In fact, during the last two years of his life, Francis received the stigmata, the five wounds of Jesus in his own body.

Two special women were very close to Francis during his life — Clare of Assisi with whom he founded the Franciscan Order, and Lady Jacoba, a friend who lived in Rome.

In 1212, Francis brought Clare to San Damiano, where she and her sisters made their first monastery of Poor Clares. Clare lived here for 41 years. She died here in 1253 and her sisters remained here until 1260, when they removed the precious body of their foundress to the new church and convent of Santa Chiara within the confines of the city of Assisi.

St. Francis died in 1226 at the age of 44. He took as his special ministry, “To heal wounds, to unite what is falling apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”

— Fr. Stephen, who writes frequently for religious and secular publications, lives at St. Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J.