Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Portiuncula Indulgence

(excerpt reprinted with permission from The Catholic Hearth magazine,
"Our Lady Queen of the Angels," by Diana Serra Cary, July-August 1994, pp. 43-45.)

The first written document we have regarding this indulgence is dated October 31, 1277, some sixty years after the indulgence is said to have been granted. As a result, many different accounts have come down to us purporting to relate the vision of St. Francis and the way in which the Pope consented to grant this indulgence. Each author seems to relate a different version that St. Francis beheld. However, although the accounts differ in details, in substance they are the same. The one we present here is the one accepted by Jorgensen in his Life of St. Francis.

One time when Francis was kneeling in prayer before the image of Our Lady, he seemed to behold men and women from every corner of the world converging upon this obscure little chapel in the Umbrian forest. He had been praying for the forgiveness of the sins of mankind when suddenly the dark interior seemed illumined by the light of a million candles. Jesus and Mary appeared in the midst of a dazzling cloud of angels, and he heard a voice that fell like music on his soul, "What do you wish me to do to help poor sinners?" Francis hardly knew how to answer, but suddenly the words came tumbling out and he asked the Lord to grant a full pardon to all who came to visit the church of Portiuncula and made a good confession. It then seemed that Jesus was in favor of this. He turned smilingly to His Mother and she, in turn, nodded to St. Francis and smiled.

Typical of the saint's impetuosity and generosity of soul, he marched off to see the Pope and beg from him the coveted indulgence. The reigning Holy Father, Honorius III, was literally dumbfounded at the request to grant such a generous indulgence. At that time, the summer of 1216, plenary indulgences were rarely granted by the Church. The plenary indulgences that had been granted were given to those fighting men who took up the cross and the sword and went as crusaders to the Holy Land. Later, this hard won indulgence was extended to those who remained at home but helped the Crusaders in supplying men and alms.

Francis, however, was not to be refused. The Lord Himself had promised him, and the Roman Curia was bound to relent! The Pope finally yielded and left it to the astonished cardinals to limit the application of the new indulgence. The date set was from vespers of the first of August until sundown on the second. It is said that Francis chose this date because the feast of the Chains of St. Peter (his release from prison) is celebrated on the first of August, and Francis felt that sinners should also be freed from the chains of their sins on the day following this great feast. Furthermore, this date was the anniversary of the consecration of the Portiuncula chapel.

As Francis took his leave of the Holy Father, after obtaining the unprecedented privilege, the Pope is said to have asked if he did not wish some document to prove that his request had been officially granted. With characteristic Franciscan lightheartedness came the saint's reply: "I need nothing more than your word. Our Lady is the parchment, Christ the notary, and the angels our witnesses!"

When the first great August first arrived, seven bishops gathered in the little chapel of Our Lady of the Angels to dedicate it as "Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula." And St. Francis, overjoyed, cried out to the crowd that overflowed the narrow building, "I want to make all of you go to heaven!"

But at the time there seemed something almost scandalous in this indulgence, and conservative prelates did little to make it known. In St. Francis' own lifetime the Portiuncula Indulgence was enjoyed by comparatively few Christians. Travel and communications were slow, and not even such good news as a plenary indulgence could travel swiftly over the mud-choked trails that passed for roads in thirteenth-century Europe. Later, of course, the indulgence was extended to all Franciscan churches on August first and second.

This chapel was the saint's favorite spot on earth. It was here he heard the Gospel that caused him to establish his First Order, following the command of Christ to go into the world and preach and baptize all men, taking neither gold nor script nor an extra cloak for the journey. Here Francis received his first Brothers, and from here he sent them into the world. In this chapel, St. Clare knelt before the image of Our Lady of the Angels, and on the floor her golden tresses fell beneath the scissors plied by Francis himself. Indeed, Francis placed such a high value on this chapel, which he had rebuilt with his own hands, that he wrote a special rule just for "Portiuncula."


He awoke one night in 1216 at the Portiuncola and an inspiration stronger than usual prompted him to arise and go into the little chapel. He knelt in prayer and, as he prayed, our Lord, accompanied by His Mother, appeared to him and bade him ask for that which he desired most. "0 God," he said, "although I m a great sinner, I beseech You to grant a full pardon of all sins to all who, having repented and confessed their sins, shall visit this church." And Jesus said to him: "Francis, you ask much, but you are worthy of greater things, and greater things you shall have."

Our Lord then granted Francis' request and told him to go to His Vicar for ratification of the indulgence. Honorius III, who was just beginning his Pontificate, was holding court at Perugia, and it was to him that Francis presented his petition.

Honorius was a spiritual, unworldly man, yet at such a request he hesitated. "Holy Father," Francis said urgently, "a little while ago I restored a chapel for you in honor of the Virgin Mother of Christ (the Portiuncula), and I beseech you to bestow on it an indulgence."

"For how many years do you want this indulgence?" the Pontiff inquired. "Holy Father," said Francis, "I ask not for years but for souls." "Just what do you want?" Honorius asked. "Holy Father," replied Francis, "the Lord has commanded me to ask you that all those who after confession shall visit the Portiuncula with contrite hearts may obtain full remission of the punishment due to the sins of their whole lives from the day of Baptism to the day they enter this church." Honorius pondered the extraordinary request, and said slowly three times: "I also, in the name of God, grant you the indulgence."
Honorius wanted to give Francis the document of the indulgence, but Francis saw no need for it. "What have you to show that this indulgence has been granted you?" the Pope asked in amazement as Francis prepared to depart for Assisi without any written confirmation of the great permission. "Holy Father," he replied, "Your word is enough for me. If this is the work of God, it is for Him to make His work manifest. I desire no other document. The Blessed Virgin Mary shall be the charter, Christ the notary, and the angels the witnesses." Some days later, before the Bishops of Umbria, Francis said: "Brethren, I want to send you all to Heaven!"

(for oneself or for a departed soul)

1. Sacramental Confession to be in God's grace (during the eight days before or after);
2. Participation in the Holy Mass and Eucharist.
3. Visit to a Franciscan Church, followed by PROFESSION OF FAITH, in order to reaffirm one's own Christian identity
4. Say the OUR FATHER, in order to reaffirm the dignity as child of God that one received in Baptism
5. A prayer for the Pope's intention, in order to reaffirm one's membership in the Church, of which the Roman Pontiff is the foundation and sign of visible unity.

Italian Bishops' Conference, Adult Catechism, n. 710

Sin not only destroys communion with God, but also compromises the interior state of persons and their relationship with other creatures. For a total repentance, it is not enough to be sorry and to receive the remission of faults. It is also necessary that reparation be made for the disorder provoked by sin, a disorder that usually continues after the sin. In this process of purification the penitent is not alone. The penitent participates in a mystery of solidarity, for which Christ and the Saints rejoice with one. God communicates to one the grace merited by others with the immense value of their existence, in order to effect one's reparation rapidly and effectively.
The Church has always exhorted the faithful to offer prayers, good works and sufferings for the conversion of sinners and for the repose of the faithful departed. During the first centuries, bishops reduced the duration and the severeness of public punishment, through the intercession of the witnesses of faith who survived tortures.

Progressively the consciousness grew that the power to bind and unbind, received from the Lord, included the faculty to free penitents from the residue left by already forgiven sins, by applying to them the merits of Christ and the Saints, in order to obtain the grace of a fervent charity. Priests grant this privilege to those who have the right interior disposition and have adhered to the prescribed norms. Participation in this penitential rite is a prerequisite to the concession of an indulgence.


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