History of the Portiuncula
During the time St. Cyril was bishop of Jerusalem (350-386), he sent four hermits to Italy with a fragment of the Virgin’s tomb, receiving from Pope Liberius the mission to build a church in the valley of Spoleto to house this relic. In 352 they built a small chapel adorned with an image of the Assumption under the name of St. Mary of Josaphat. It took the name of St. Mary of the Angels in 576, after St. Benedict had obtained it for his Order.
By 1075 the small church was so dilapidated that the Benedictine monks had to leave it and return to Mount Subiaco Abbey. It was in this state of dilapidation, increased by two centuries of abandonment, when Francis of Assisi brought the torment of his soul to the calm of these woods by asking God for the secret of his vocation. Distressed at the sight of the ruins of the ancient chapel, and driven by his devotion to the Queen of Heaven, he resolved to rebuild the walls and for this purpose settled down within them: it was in 1207.
Making use of branches, he made a cell in which he became an assiduous host. Two years passed. Following the restoration of the Portiuncula, and to satisfy the devotion of the young man, the priest of St. Damien sometimes went there in the morning hours, to celebrate mass.
On February 24, 1209, he was struck by these words from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Do not possess gold, nor silver, nor money in your purses: Nor scrip for your journey, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff” (Mt. 10:9-10). Francis got up immediately, threw his purse, his stick, his shoes on the ground, and cried out joyfully: “I want this and desire this with all my heart.” This was the solution for his doubts: the rule henceforth covered his whole life. Francis then asked the Benedictine father to grant him the enjoyment of the little Portiuncula Chapel. The father willingly gave it up and would have even given to him, but the Poverello had given up all property; he did not want to own it and demanded that the Brothers every year bring to the abbey a basket of fish to pay for the rental.
Nearby, in the woods, Francis and his first disciples built a hut of foliage which sheltered the beginnings of their life together. The great basilica built by the Dominican Pope St. Pius V today covers the humble and ancient “Chiesetta” with its majestic dome.
This “little church” is the pearl of the Franciscan order. The most glorious memories of the life of St. Francis are gathered around the humble chapel. It was there that Christ appeared to the Blessed One, one night in July 1216, to grant something to him and to his Brothers, “to the glory of my Name, for I have established you for the support of My Church and the salvation of the nations.”
At the saint’s prayer, Christ, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, granted a plenary indulgence for those who, having confessed, would visit this church. But He asked him to have it ratified by the then reigning Pope Honorius III. The Pope consented, but only for a given day. The fixed day was August 2, from the first Vespers – that is, the evening before, until the end of the day.
At the moment when he was about to leave the earth when, blind and dying, they brought him down to Assisi, the Father of Friars Minor expressed great joy at finding himself at the Portiuncula, which he had left two years before, and he was carried into the chapel where he prayed for a long time.
St. Pius X, on April 11, 1909, confirmed on the Portiuncula the title of Head and Mother of the Order of Friars Minor, and invested it with the dignity of Patriarchal Basilica and Papal Chapel.
The Portiuncula Indulgence
To benefit from the indulgence, three conditions must be met: sacramental confession, holy communion, and a visit to the church which enjoys the privilege of the Portiuncula where one must pray (at least one Pater and one Ave) for the intentions of the Sovereign Pontiffs who have granted and confirmed the indulgence, and pray one Pater, one Apostle’s Creed, and one other prayer of the individual’s choice while in the church.
Confession and Communion may be received in the eight days preceding or following the visit.
The churches affected by the indulgence are the following: all the churches of the various Franciscan Orders (Conventuals, Friars Minor, Capuchins, or Poor Clares); all the cathedrals, the minor basilicas, and finally all parish churches.
Finally, what is meant by the “intentions of the Sovereign Pontiffs” is defined. These are the following intentions:
– the exaltation of the holy Catholic Church;
– the propagation of the Faith;
– the extirpation of heresies;
– the conversion of sinners;
– peace and harmony between Christian princes;
– the other needs of Christianity.