Our Lady of the Angels' Wonderful Indulgence
of the Portiuncula given to St. Francis of Assisi
Feasts: Impression of the Stigmata, September 17th, & October 4th
ONE NIGHT IN July of the year 1216, a small, lean, dark-haired and dark-eyed Italian mendicant friar was fervently praying for humanity in his little thatched hut in the woods. His name was Brother Francis, and even then, though he was only thirty-four, he was known and loved by thousands of persons. Twelve years later, only twenty-two months after his death, Holy Mother Church was to proclaim him St. Francis of Assisi. But in his own eyes, this Poverello, the "Little Poor Man," was "the chief of sinners."
Now, through the silent hours of the night, he implored Almighty God to have mercy on all poor sinners. Remembering Christ's words, "Unless you do penance, you shall all likewise perish," he thought of his own youth. Only twelve years ago he had been a restless, frivolous, ambitious play-boy and soldier who hardly gave God a moment of his attention, except on Sunday mornings. And then one night the Lord of Mercy had said to him: "Francis, who can do you most good, the master or the servant?"
Francis had taken that great lesson to heart and decided henceforth to put first things first: he asked the Master how he could serve Him. And Jesus Christ Himself, the loving Savior dying in agony on the Cross for all mankind, had looked down on him with tender affection and said: "REBUILD MY CHURCH!"
Ever since, whenever Francis thought of how kind and good and lovable Jesus was, tears came into his eyes and he exclaimed: "Love is not loved!" At first he had taken Christ's words literally and gladly repaired the chapel in which he had had this unforgettable vision. Then he had come down into these woods on the plain below Assisi, and he had repaired the lovely little old chapel of Our Lady of the Angels, or the Little Portion, "Portiuncula,' as it was also called. The peasants insisted that they often heard angels singing above it. And now Francis, as St. Bonaventure tells us, "by reason of the ardent devotion that he had toward the Sovereign Lady of the world... and by reason of his reverence for the Angels.... took up his abode there."
It was there that his first Brothers had joined him in a joyful new life of holy poverty, manual labor, caring for leprosy patients, begging, and preaching the love of Christ. And Francis, after renting the chapel from the Benedictine Fathers for a basket of fish each year - for he refused to own anything but his sackcloth habit - and oppressed by the thought of his unworthiness to be the Founder of a religious order; had climbed up to a cave in the mountains; there, during a raging storm, he had thrown himself on the ground and with perfect, burning contrition had begged his Savior to forgive him the sins of his past life. In his anguish of soul he had cried out:
"Who art Thou, my dear Lord and God - and who am I, Thy miserable worm of a servant? My dearest Lord, I want to love Thee! My Lord and my God, I give Thee my heart and my body, and I would wish, if only I knew how, to do still more for the love of Thee!" And he kept repeating: "Lord, have mercy on me, a poor sinner...!"
Then a sweet and gentle peace, the marvelous peace of Christ, came into his pure, penitent soul, and he heard a Voice say: "Francis, thy sins are wiped out"'
Ever since, out of heartfelt gratitude, he had been burning with a passionate desire to obtain the same heavenly favor for all repentant sinners. And that was exactly what he was so fervently praying for now, during this Summer night, in his hut in the forest near the holy chapel of Our Lady of the Angels...
Suddenly he felt an irresistible impulse to go into the tiny church. Upon entering, as always he knelt, bowed his head and said this prayer:
"We pray to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all Thy churches all over the world, and we bless Thee because by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world!"
Then, looking up, to his amazement Francis saw a bright light above the small altar; and in this mysterious radiance he perceived the Redeemer Himself with His Holy Mother and many angels. With keen joy and deep awe, Francis prostrated himself on the floor before this glorious vision, as Jesus said to him: " (continued inside page)
Francis, ask what you want for the salvation of men!"
Almost overcome at hearing these unexpected words and consumed with seraphic love for His merciful Savior; Francis exclaimed:
"Though I am but a miserable sinner; I beseech Thee, dear Jesus, to grant this grace to mankind: Give everyone who comes truly contrite and confessed into this church, complete forgiveness and indulgence of all his sins!"
Seeing that Christ remained silent, Francis turned with loving confidence to Mary and cried out: "And I beg Thy Blessed Mother; the Advocate of the human race, to intercede with Thee for this request!"
Then Jesus looked at Mary, and Francis was thrilled to see her smile gravely and nod to her Divine Son, as if to say: "Please grant it to him for my sake." At once Our Lord said to Francis: "I grant your petition. However, you must go to My Vicar, the Pope, and ask Him to approve this indulgence." Then the wonderful vision vanished, leaving the Little Poor Man sobbing on the ground with relief and gratitude and love...
Rising early the next morning, Francis set out with Brother Masseo for the nearby city of Perugia, where a new Pope, Honorius III, had just been elected. But on the way, Francis could not help worrying: after all, he was asking for an unknown chapel, a privilege, such as only the tombs of Christ and Saints Peter and Paul enjoyed! So he prayed and prayed as hard as he could, especially to Our Lady of the Angels.
When his turn came to speak to the Vicar of Christ, Francis said very humbly:
"Your Holiness, some years ago I repaired a small church in honor of the Blessed Virgin. I beg you to grant it an indulgence, without offerings."
(As usual, Francis was thinking of the poor.)
The Pope replied:
"That is not reasonable, for someone who wants an indulgence should make a sacrifice. But how many years do you wish for this indulgence?"
Knowing very well that plenary indulgences were practically restricted to the Crusades and to St. Peter's, Francis said earnestly:
"Holy Father, may it please Your Holiness not to give years, but souls?"
"How do you mean, 'souls'?"
Now he had to come out with it! Sending up a fervent prayer to Our Lady, Francis humbly but firmly voiced his extraordinary request for what was to become known as the "Portiuncula Indulgence":
"I wish, if it please Your Holiness, because of the graces which God grants in that church, that all who go into it, having sincerely repented and confessed and having received absolution, may have all their sins and all punishment for their sins wiped out, both in this world and the next, from the day of their Baptism to the hour when they enter that church!"
Taken aback by such a daring request, the Pope exclaimed:
"You are asking for a great thing, Francis, for it is not the custom of the Roman Court to grant such an indulgence..."
Realizing that his whole plan to help humanity might utterly fail in another minute, Francis then added quietly, with a burning holy fervor and devastating sincerity:
"Most Holy Father, I do not ask you this by myself-I ask it on behalf of Him Who sent me to you: Our Lord Jesus Christ!"
In a flash Pope Honorius recalled that his great predecessor, Innocent III, had been utterly convinced that Christ did indeed appear to and guide this remarkable little holy man. And by reports coming in from all over Italy he knew that Francis and his Brothers were indeed rebuilding Christ's Church by inspiring rich and poor to live pure and simple Christian lives. Therefore, moved by the Holy Ghost, Christ's Vicar solemnly declared three times: "It is my wish that it be granted to you!"
But the Cardinals who were present, upon hearing this revolutionary innovation, immediately protested to the Pope, claiming that this rich new indulgence would weaken the Crusades. In the strongest terms they urged Him to cancel it. However, the Pope told them: "I will not cancel what I have granted."
"Then restrict it as much as possible," they insisted.
So the Holy Father called Francis back to him and said:
"We grant you this indulgence, and it is to be valid for all years in perpetuity-but only for one natural day each year, from Vespers on one evening, through the night, until Vespers the next evening."
Francis submissively bowed his head, and after thanking the Pope, he rose and began to leave. But the Pope called to him:
"Where are you going, you simple fellow? You have no charter yet for this indul-gence!"
Francis turned around, and with his charming, trusting smile he said:
"Holy Father; your word is enough for me. If this is the work of God, it is for Him to make His work manifest-I need no other document. The Blessed Virgin Mary shall be the charter, Christ the notary; and the Angels the Witnesses!"
On the way back to their beloved Portiuncula, Francis and Masseo rested awhile. On awaking, Francis prayed, and in his prayer he heard these words:
"Francis, know that this indulgence which has been granted to you on earth has been confirmed in Heaven!"
With great joy he told his revelation to Brother Masseo, and together they hastened to thank Our Lady of the Angels in her Little Portion.
For the solemn inauguration of this Great Pardon of Portiuncula, Francis chose August 2nd, because this was the first anniversary of the consecration of the holy chapel, and because August 1 was the Feast of the Liberation of St. Peter from his prison chains. On that day, therefore, in the presence of Bishops from neighboring towns, Francis gave a moving sermon in which he told the people about the Indulgence. Speaking with the love and fervor of an Angel on the need for penance and contrition, he exclaimed: "I want to send you all to Heaven!"
Soon afterward, however; seeing the bitter opposition which the Portiuncula Indulgence was arousing among the prelates of the Church, Francis wisely ordered his friars not to publicize the Indulgence further for the time being. To his closest friend, Brother Leo, he said:
"Keep it a secret, and do not tell it until near the end of your life. For it is not something for now; this indulgence is to remain hidden for a time. But the Lord will bring it out and manifest it..."
And consequently, none of the early biographers of St. Francis referred to it. But in the 1260's his oldest companion began to talk about it, and after Brother Leo's death in 1271 several witnesses certified that he and his Brothers had told them all about it. Soon the Bishops of Assisi and eventually the Popes issued documents confirming the Great Pardon of Portiuncula, and Mary's tiny chapel became one of the most famous pilgrimage Shrines in all Europe.
Later the precious Indulgence was extended to all Franciscan churches throughout the world, and made a toties quoties perpetual plenary indulgence applicable to the Poor Souls in Purgatory. And in 1921 Pope Benedict XV canceled the one-day restriction at the Portiuncula itself, so that now pilgrims may gain the Great Pardon there on any day of the year. Thus has the Little Poor Man of Assisi enriched the world through his Christlike love for sinners! And his Third Order for men and women in the world, which he called "The Order of Penance," represents the simple, modest, Christian way of life, by means of which millions of humble and penitent and charitable persons have in past years earned the reward of God's true servants. Through the Portiuncula and the Third Order, the Seraphic St. Francis has indeed sent millions of souls to Heaven.
Both Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin have confirmed their approval of the Great Pardon of the Portiuncula. Jesus Christ told St. Bridget of Sweden: "My Divine Love granted this indulgence to St. Francis that all may be filled with My blessings and receive the remission of their sins." And once a saintly Franciscan Friar, Blessed Konrad of Offida, saw Mary with the Child Jesus in her arms come down from Heaven in a bright ray of light and stand above the entrance of the Portiuncula Chapel, while the Christ Child with touching affection repeatedly raised His little arm and blessed the pilgrims who were entering His Mother's Little Portion to receive the Great Pardon.
(based on an account by Raphael Brown)
Visit also: www.marienfried.com