On the Franciscan calendar, August 2nd marks a very special Marian feast day, one which commemorates the remarkable connection between Our Lady of the Angels and Saint Francis of Assisi. The story behind this connection is well worth telling.
It’s not often that we come across a word like Portiuncula, but devotees of Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) probably would be familiar with the word and its great significance in his spiritual journey. Portiuncula translates from Italian to English as “little portion.” For our purposes, the term refers to a small parcel of land located a few miles outside of the city of Assisi. Originally owned by the Benedictine Order of monks, the land and the tiny ancient chapel, called Saint Mary of the Angels, which rested on it, were gifted by them to Saint Francis at the outset of his ministry.
In his zeal to forego the things of this world in favor of a life of poverty and simplicity, Saint Francis fell in love with the little chapel, which had been abandoned and was in a sad state of disrepair. He lived there, worked to restore it, and by reason of his ardent devotion to Our Lady, dedicated it to her. In those early days of his spiritual awakening, Saint Francis could not have envisioned how important this tiny, unassuming structure would become to his fledgling ministry.
Noted Catholic convert and author Gilbert K. Chesterton states in his biography of this popular saint, “…the church of the Portiuncula will remain forever as one of the great historic buildings of the world; for it was here that he [Francis] gathered the little knot of friends and enthusiasts” who formed the foundation of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor in the year 1209. Here the small initial band of a dozen or so lived, as Chesterton describes, “without comforts, without possessions, eating anything they could get and sleeping anyhow on the ground.” Despite the dire picture painted here, theirs was a life of great joy, spiritual purpose, and the peace that the world cannot give.
The significance of the Portiuncula deepened even further in the year 1211, when a beautiful, prosperous young woman named Clare, born to nobility, secretly left her family and fled to the little chapel to take sanctuary. There she exchanged her costly garments for a rough religious habit from the hands of Saint Francis, giving birth to the Order of Sisters known throughout the world still today as the Poor Clares. Saint Clare of Assisi remains as she became on that night over eight hundred years ago – a true sister to Saint Francis in faith and devotion to the Lord.
The Portiuncula was the gathering place where the Friars Minor held their regular chapter meetings to discuss the Rule of the Order and to rededicate themselves to their holy purpose. At one point, some years after the Order’s founding, the original group of twelve had grown exponentially, to the impressive number of five thousand plus. Even given that increase, the general chapter took place at the Portiuncula, and somehow, food and other necessities were provided so that all were satisfied.
Early writings describe visions of Our Lady and the angels received by Saint Francis during his time in the chapel. The Portiuncula plenary indulgence was requested by Saint Francis on behalf of the faithful during one such splendid vision of Jesus and Our Lady there. This indulgence can be received, for oneself or on behalf of a departed soul, by visiting any parish church on or near the feast day, under the usual conditions:
~ Sacramental Confession to be in a state of grace (between eight days before and after August 2nd)
~ Participation in Holy Mass and reception of Holy Eucharist
~ Recitation of the Apostles Creed, Our Father, and prayers for the intentions of the Pope
Today, the tiny chapel of the Portiuncula resides inside the great Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Our Lady of the Angels), the title originally given to the structure in honor of the Mother of God. Pilgrims flock to the site year-round.
According to Saint Bonaventure, brother in religion to Saint Francis, in his biography of the life of the saint: "This place [the Portiuncula] was loved by the holy man above all places in the world, for here, in great humility, he began his spiritual life; here he grew in virtue; here he attained his happy and perfect end; and this, at the hour of his death, he commended to his brethren as a spot most dear to the Blessed Virgin.”
In truth, when Saint Francis discerned that his earthly life was approaching its end, he entreated his Friars to transport him to his beloved Portiuncula, where he departed this life shortly thereafter. Thus, the spiritual journey of Saint Francis and the Portiuncula came full circle, beginning and end – his soul left his body in that same tiny, blessed place where his beloved Order of Brothers had begun.
From those most humble beginnings emerged not only the Order of Friars Minor and the Poor Clares Order of religious Sisters, but also the Third Order of Franciscan lay men and women. The Portiuncula, miniscule and unassuming, remains as a standing tribute to the little Friar of Assisi who accomplished such great deeds for his Lord.
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