Saturday, August 2, 2008

Feast of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula

Happy Feast of the Portiuncula!
On this day, members of the Franciscan family around the world honor the birthplace of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM), the penitential movement founded by our Seraphic Father, Francis of Assisi.
The term “Portiuncula” itself refers specifically to a small piece of land – hence, the “little portion” or “Porziuncula” in Italian— containing an abandoned chapel ceded to St. Francis himself by the Benedictine monks of Monte Subasio on this day in the year 1208. According to our history and tradition, Francis personally worked on the restoration of this tiny church (it measures just 22 by 13 feet) located 5 km. outside the city walls of Assisi. It was here on Palm Sunday, 1211, that Francis received St. Clare into religious life. It was here that during the lifetime of Francis, the General Chapters (or conferences) of the nascent Order were held, usually at Pentecost. And it was here, at the Little Portion, that Francis died at sunset on October 3, 1226. Since then, the site has been continuously maintained by the friars.

The Franciscans’ enduring affection for the Portiuncula as both a place and a significant part of the life of Francis himself is eloquently told in the words of Thomas of Celano, his official biographer:

“Francis, the servant of God,
was small in stature,
humble in attitude, and lesser by profession.
While living in the world
He chose a little portion of the world
For himself and his followers,
Since he could not serve Christ
Unless he had something of this world.
Since ancient times, prophetically,
This place was called, “the little Portion,”
Sine it was the lot ceded to those who wished to hold nothing of this world.
In this place
There was a church built for the Virgin Mother,
Who by her unique humility
Deserved, after her Son, to be the head of all the saints,
It is here the Order of the Lesser Ones
Had its beginning.
As their numbers increased,
There “a noble structure arose
Upon their solid foundation.”
The saint loved this place more than any other.
He commanded his brothers
To venerate it with special reverence.
He wanted it, like a mirror of the Order,
Always preserved in humility and highest poverty,
And therefore kept its ownership in the hands of others,
Keeping for himself and his brothers only the use of it.”
(Thomas Celano: The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, Chapter XII).

A later biographer of Francis, St. Bonaventure wrote in his Major Life of St. Francis:
“Francis had great devotion to the Queen of the world and when he saw that the church was deserted, he began to live there constantly in order to repair it. He heard that the Angels often visited it, so that it was called Saint Mary of the Angels, and he decided to stay there permanently out of reverence for the angels and love for the Mother of Christ.
“He loved this spot more than any other in the world. It was here he began his religious life in a very small way; it is here he came to a happy end. When he was dying, he commended this spot above all others to the friars, because it was most dear to the Blessed Virgin….”
“As he was living there by the church of Our Lady, Francis prayed to her who had conceived the Word, full of grace and truth, begging her insistently and with tears to become his advocate. Then he was granted the true spirit of the Gospel by the intercession of the Mother of mercy and he brought it to fruition. He embraced the Mother of Our Lord Jesus with indescribable love because, as he said, it was she who made the Lord of majesty our brother, and through her we found mercy. After Christ, he put all his trust in her and took her as his patroness for himself and his friars.”

Since the construction of the present-day Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels (1569-1679) the Portiuncula has been enclosed within the sanctuary of that magnificent Baroque edifice. Furthermore, over the centuries, both the façade and interior of the structure have been adorned with magnificent frescoes. Still, despite its surrounding architectural splendor, the Portiuncula retains something of its original spirit of its poverty and simplicity.
The Portiuncula continues to be revered as a pilgrimage destination for Catholic Christians to this day. And the tradition of the Pardon of Assisi (an indulgence, or remission of punishment due to sins) granted by Pope Pope Honorius III in 1216, has since been extended to Franciscan churches throughout the world on this date.

In our own time, the Portiuncula has achieved a contemporary cachet by serving as the site for the annual World Day of Prayer in Assisi inaugurated by the late Pope John Paul II on October 27, 1986. In the presence of representatives of the world’s major religious traditions present, the Holy Father paid tribute to the example and challenge of Francis and Clare in the persistent search for world peace—a peace which continues to both attract and elude us:

“What we have done today at Assisi, praying and witnessing to our commitment to peace, we must continue to do every day of our life. For what we have done today’s is vital for the world. If the world is going to continue, and men and women are to survive in it, the world cannot do without prayer.
‘This is the permanent lesson of Assisi: it is the lesson of Saint Francis who embodied an attractive ideal for us; it is the lesson of Saint Clare, his first follower. It is an ideal composed of meekness, humility, a deep sense of God and a commitment to serve all. Saint Francis was a man of peace.
‘We recall that he abandoned the military career he had followed for a while in his youth, and discovered the value of poverty, the value of a simple and austere life, in imitation of Jesus Christ whom he intended to serve. Saint Clare was the woman, par excellence, of prayer. Her union with God in prayer sustained Francis and his followers, as it sustains us today. Francis and Clare are examples of peace: with God, with oneself, with all men and women in this world. May this holy man and this holy woman inspire all people today to have the same strength of character and love of God and neighbour to continue on the path we must walk together.’

As a final note, today is also the ‘feast day’ of the City of Los Angeles, California, whose official name is “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula or The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion.” In fact, the official seal of the City of Los Angeles is encircled by the seven decades of the “Franciscan Crown” or rosary! In addition, the foundation of the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, contains a stone from the Portiuncula presented by the friars of Assisi to the people of Los Angeles in 1997.

As we honor Our Lady of the Angels, may we find inspiration for our own growth and development in the Gospel way of life that Saint Francis embraced and lived so completely:

Salutation Of The Blessed Virgin
by Saint Francis of Assisi
Hail Holy Lady most holy Queen,
Mary Mother of God.
Chosen by the Father in heaven
 consecrated by Him.
 With His most beloved Son and
Holy Spirit Comforter,
On you descended and still remains
 fullness of grace
 and every good.
Hail His palace and His robe, 
Mary Mother of God. 
Hail His handmaid lowly and pure, 
Loving servant of the Lord.
 Hail holy virtues given by God
 to all the faithful in the world,
So that we may no longer be faithless, but may become the
servants of the Lord. - AMEN

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