A little house within a big church

Blessings of St. Francis’ Portiuncula available to all on Aug. 2

St. Francis of Assisi has been in the news lately, thanks to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care of creation. The pope chose, as his title, words from St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun: “Laudato si” meaning “Praise be to you (my Lord).”

Many of us know that St. Francis is honored on his feast day, Oct. 4. Not as many of us may know of another feast day associated with him that falls on Aug. 2. Called the “Feast of Pardon,” “the Pardon (or Forgiveness) of Assisi” or “the Feast of Portiuncula,” Aug. 2 marks a day when Catholics may receive a full pardon for any temporal punishment that is due to them after death for sins which they have committed during their lives. Aug. 2 is also the feast of Our Lady of the Angels.

The Portiuncula (Porziuncola) Indulgence is a plenary (complete) indulgence, which people can obtain both for themselves and for the souls of the deceased. Plenary indulgences are granted to those who devoutly perform a specific spiritual work or devotion — often a pilgrimage to a holy site — and also fulfill these normal requirements set by the Catholic Church:

  • Reception of the sacrament of confession;
  • Reception of the Eucharist and;
  • Prayer for the intentions of the pope. (This prayer requirement — which shows one’s union with the Catholic Church — is fully satisfied by at least one recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and one Hail Mary.)

These three conditions may be fulfilled within a period of several days. However, it is most fitting that the last two conditions take place on the same day as the devotional act or visit, while participation in the sacrament of confession may take place within several days before or after the pilgrimage or devotion. One confession may cover several indulgences, but reception of the Eucharist and prayer for papal intentions can apply to only one indulgence at a time.

While many plenary indulgences are attached to places, the Portiuncula Indulgence is attached to both a place and a specific date: Aug. 2. According to legend, this is the date on which St. Francis — beset by temptation — threw himself into a thorn bush in Assisi as a distraction. The thorns turned to roses and the saint was unharmed. Later that night, he received the first Portiuncula Indulgence.

Never remiss in his care for souls, the saint of Assisi also asked the Lord to grant the same gift to others. It is said that Francis received a vision of the Blessed Mother and the Lord Jesus. When Jesus told Francis to ask for anything he wanted, Francis asked for a plenary indulgence for anyone who visited the church in which he was then praying. Jesus agreed.

The place where Francis was praying was a tiny chapel that he himself had restored in Assisi. Known as “the portiuncula” or “little portion,” the chapel had been given to Francis by the Benedictines so that he could use it as the foundation site of his new Franciscan community (which he called the Order of Friars Minor).

No one knows where the little chapel came from, though legends say that it was built by hermits who had come from the Valley of Josaphat, carrying relics of the Blessed Virgin. Other legends say that the little chapel was the site of angelic singing — which is why the parish and town around the little chapel is now called “Santa Maria degli Angeli” (St. Mary of the Angels).

The chapel, which measures only about seven by four meters, is very small but exquisitely decorated. It now exists entirely inside by the larger church of St. Mary of the Angels, which is down the hill and about a mile from Assisi. The cell where Francis died is still preserved nearby, as are the rose bushes. On the front of the chapel is a painting of Francis receiving the Portiuncula Indulgence.

After his vision, which took place in 1216, Francis asked the Holy Father, Honorius III, to approve the indulgence. This was done and, eventually, the indulgence — granted from the afternoon of Aug. 1 until sunset on Aug. 2 — was extended to other Franciscan churches. Today, the indulgence may be sought at any parish church as well as the diocesan cathedral.

One thing to note is that there are no contemporary documents supporting the legend of the origins of this indulgence. St. Francis died in 1223 and, as “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes, the oldest document referring to this indulgence dates to Oct. 31, 1277.

However, this does not affect the granting of the Portiuncula Indulgence today and the faithful should feel welcome to avail themselves of this chance to gain an increased portion of God’s grace for themselves, or for the deceased loved ones.


Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; franciscanfriarstor.com; The Franciscan Book of Prayer; americancatholic.org; ourladyswarriors.org; franciscan-sfo.org; and piercedhearts.org.

Conditions to obtain the plenary indulgence of the Forgiveness of Assisi:
Sacramental confession (during the eight days before or after);
Participation in the Holy Mass and Eucharist.
Visit to a Catholic church and making the Profession of Faith (affirming one’s identity as a Christian).
Reciting the Lord’s Prayer (a reminder of one’s baptism);
Offering a prayer for the intention of the Holy Father.