It was only a few years ago that I first learnt of this devotional practice. At the time I wondered why such a tremendous gift from the treasury of the Church wasn’t proclaimed from all pulpits and rooftops. Today I’m still left wondering… but proclaim it I shall. But first, a bit of potted history:
The Portiuncula Indulgence, which can be obtained every year on 2th August or the first Sunday thereafter, is owed to the prayer of St Francis of Assisi. When in 1209 he founded the Order of the Friars Minor, this great Saint, who so esteemed poverty and lowliness, beseeched the Benedictine Abbot in possession of a humble little chapel in Assisi, the Portiuncula church, to let the Franciscans have it for their use. The chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, had been abandoned for a long time. Once the Benedictines had given it to him, Francis set about restoring it.
It was in this historic church that on 28th March 1211 St Clare received her habit from St Francis and so initiated the Order of the Poor Clares. And here too, St Francis implored of God the Portiuncula Indulgence. Whilst there are variations in different writers’ accounts, tradition tells us that in October 1221, whilst the Saint was in his cell weeping over poor sinners, an angel appeared to him, inviting him into the presence of the Son of God in company with his Virgin Mother and a host of angels who had visibly descended into the little church.
Saint Francis immediately hurried into the little church and found everything exactly as the angel had told him. Filled with awe, he fell face down before the Lord and adored Him. Jesus in turn looked graciously upon his humble servant inviting him to ask any favour, with the assurance of granting him his request. Plucking up courage, the Saint begged that all sinners visiting the church and contritely confessing their sins might receive full pardon. To this Jesus replied: “Francis, you ask much, but I will favour you with greater things still; your prayer is granted, but go to my vicar, the Pope, and in my Name ask for the Indulgence which I have granted to you.” The apparition disappeared, leaving Francis overjoyed.
The following day, together with his brothers, St Francis hastened to Pope Honorius III, fell prostrate before him, and beseeched him to announce that everyone visiting the church, and confessing their sins with contrite heart, would be as pure from sin and punishment as at their baptism. Honorius, somewhat taken aback by this strange petition, hesitated to grant it. But Francis insisted that it was the Lord Jesus Christ himself who had sent him to make this request. The Pope, finally convinced by the truth of his words, granted his petition and ordered the solemn consecration of the little church and the declaration of the Indulgence for the second day of August.
Henceforth, pilgrims from all parts of the world flocked to the Portiuncula church to gain the Indulgence, and countless conversions occurred at that shrine of grace. To render this Indulgence more accessible to the faithful, subsequent Popes extended it to all Franciscan churches and later to all parish churches, and to make this grace more readily available to the faithful, the first Sunday after the 2nd August has been appointed as the day for gaining the Indulgence.
The first written documentation of this Indulgence dates back to 31st October 1277, about half a century after the Indulgence had been granted. When Pope Honorius offered Francis a document of the Indulgence, Francis replied that there was 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.”
Conditions attached to the Indulgence
The Indulgence, if the person gaining it is free from every sin, remits all the temporal punishment due to sin and may be applied to the person himself or herself or to a soul in Purgatory. If there is any adherence to sin in the person gaining the Indulgence, the Indulgence becomes partial.
Whilst it is possible to gain the Indulgence in any public church or oratory in the world beginning from noon on 1nd August until midnight at the end of 2nd August, one can now also obtain it on the first Sunday after 2nd August. The person wishing to gain the Indulgence must fulfill the following requirements:
a. Intend to gain the Indulgence.
b. Be detached from all sin, even venial sin.
c. While in the church pray one Our Father, one Apostles’ Creed, and one other prayer of the individual’s choice.
d. Pray for the intentions of the Pope (prayerfully saying an Our Father and a Hail Mary will suffice although other prayers may be said).
e. Receive the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist within one week either before or after the appointed day.
For further information from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Indulgences click here.
Shortly after his visit to Pope Honorarius, Francis said before the Bishops of Umbria: “Brethren, I want to send you all to Heaven!” As we respond with thankful hearts to this great spiritual gift, may we hear the Seraphic Saint speak those beautiful words to us also.