Photo Illustration by Tom Vogel
The Benedictines gave Francis and his followers the use of this Portiuncula or Little Portion chapel. Annual rentóinsisted on by Francisówas a basket of fish.
Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Francis of Assisi wanted everyone who visited the Portiuncula,
Mother Church of his friars, to experience forgiveness and
blessing. Such gifts are still found there. By Robert M. Stewart,
FEAST OF PARDON, as it is called in Italy, always
attracts thousands of visitors and pilgrims to Assisi. According
to legend and later historical fragments, St. Francis of Assisi
persuaded Pope Honorius III to grant a plenary indulgence
to all those who visited the Portiuncula on August 2 and confessed
was on this date that the little church was dedicated under
the patronage of St. Mary of the Angels. The Portiuncula,
or Little Portion, is the cradle of the Franciscan Order,
established as its headquarters by St. Francis himself. The
Feast of Pardon has been celebrated there with great ceremony
through the centuries. Knowing that the basilica, damaged
by the 1997 earthquake, will still be open for this yearís
feast reminds me once again of the blessings I received there
just a few years ago.
after the early morning Mass, another friar and I set out
from Rome for Assisi. For the first time, I would celebrate
this feast of reconciliation in the city of Francis. In Assisi,
Francis himself had experienced the pardon of the Lord, proclaimed
Godís goodness and invited others to conversion at the Portiuncula.
We planned to visit the little chapel within the Basilica
of St. Mary of the Angels in the valley below Assisi and spend
the rest of the day in the city.
after nine a.m. we arrived at our destination. The small chapel,
one of the three churches repaired by the young Francis, had
been all but abandoned in the wooded plain below Assisi in
the 13th century. Now it is preserved in the center of the
large basilica. That sacred place which was so dear to Francis
that he asked the brothers never to leave it, that holy ground
where Francis asked to be brought as he lay dying, continues
to call countless pilgrims to prayer and to celebrate the
Feast of the Pardon of Assisi.
knelt on the stone floor and, with head bent, prayed in silence.
As I emerged from the chapel and walked toward my friend,
I was struck by the large number of people waiting to go to
confession. At least 20 friars were hearing confessions, but
long lines of people stood everywhere waiting to confess.
Leading of the Heart
an instant I changed my plans. My head might have questioned,
but my heart now directed me. Without hesitation, I asked
one of the friars if I could help with confessions. A bit
surprised but very grateful for my offer, he thanked me and
immediately went to set up two chairs in front of a side altar.
Francis loved this spot more than any other in the world....It was here that he made such extraordinary progress
apologized to my waiting friend for my change in plans and
for leaving him alone for the day. While he thought I was
crazy, he respected my decision to stay and hear confessions.
We agreed to meet outside the basilica around 5:30 p.m. to
witness the youth celebration before heading back to Rome.
placed a stole over my habit, sat down and began to hear confessions
as a long line of penitents immediately gathered. After I
had been hearing confessions for an hour or so, I caught sight
of another friar friend. Though a member of the Assisi province,
he was studying in Rome. We had become friends over the years,
having met when he was studying theology in Assisi. He did
not look in my directionóor so I thought.
later he appeared at my side, between confessions, to ask
if I was staying for lunch. When I said yes, he suggested
that we meet in the sacristy at 12:30 since pranzo
(the afternoon meal) would begin at 12:45. I agreed.
Francis repaired the abandoned chapel dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels. He wanted future pilgrims to know the blessings he had experiences under its roof.
Photo by Carol Ann Morrow
basilica is closed from 12:30 to 2:30 daily, as is the custom
throughout Italy. The two of us spoke excitedly as we moved
through the ancient corridors and across the cloistered courtyard,
quietly slipping into the full and festive refectory where
the first-course plates were already being cleared. We hastened
to prepare ourselves a plate of pasta and seat ourselves.
couldnít imagine a more joyous celebration of the feast. The
meal, especially the pasta, was eccellente! I sat in
the company of my brothers, happy to celebrate with them this
Franciscan feast and truly grateful to share lunch with a
more than the meal, my brothers or my friend, the experience
of the morningís confessions filled me with an inexplicable
joy and inner peace. Rarely had I heard so many confessions.
Never had I sat hearing confessions for over three hours continuously
in Italian. Yet I wasnít tired. I felt overwhelmed with joy
and peace, excited being at the Portiuncula for the feast
and humbled by hearing the confessions of such faith-filled
Making My Own Peace
our meal, my friend and I went for a walk in the ancient,
cloistered courtyard. We moved slowly round and round its
perimeter. I asked him to hear my confession. Though initially
reluctant, when he heard me explain that I wanted to express
my sinfulness before one who knew me, he agreed. I prayed,
confessed my sins and listened to his counsel. He prayed with
me and absolved my sins. We exchanged a blessing of peace
and parted. A profound peace flooded my being.
I wound my way back through the corridors, I prayed in gratitude
for the gift of the day. I returned to the basilica not to
work but again to sit on holy ground, again to pray in that
sacred place, once again to proclaim, to witness and to celebrate
the mercy of God.
donned my stole and sat down in that same old rickety chair.
A long line formed immediately. I heard confession after confession.
At times I spoke but a few words; other times I entered into
conversation with the penitent. At times the confession of
sins appeared somewhat rote, but more often the penitents
evidenced such a sincere faith and profound penitence in their
prayer for Godís forgiveness that I was edified and humbled.
out of the hundreds in my line of penitents, there emerged
one who would touch my very depths. I cannot remember the
color of his hair, the shape of his face or the sound of his
voice. Yet that penitent would so witness for me the transforming
power of Godís love that I remember his very soul, that experience
A Repentant Drug-dealer
me sat a man I guessed to be in his early 20ís, a young man
with bowed head, an anonymous penitent who began (in Italiano),
"Bless me, Fatheró" He faltered, whispering that he did not
even know how long it had been, just that it had been years.
I assured him that it did not matter how long it had been.
It mattered only that he was there. I spoke with him about
Godís love. I asked him to remember Godís promise of forgiveness
and then to speak whatever sins he wanted to confess. He fell
silent, head in hands.
waited, not wanting to pressure him, trying to allow him the
time he needed. Several times he started to stammer but fell
again into silence.
he shook his head as if to say no and began to raise himself
from the chair. As I looked into his tear-filled eyes, my
heart went out to him in his pain. Gently I touched his arm,
hoping to convey my concern and to encourage him to speak.
He sat again. Tears started to stream down his face as he
blurted out that God could never forgive him.
cried as he spoke about his sinfulness, how worthless a person
he was, how he had hurt others, how he hated what he had done
and who he was. He kept repeating that God could not forgive
him as he mentioned some of his sins and, with voice drifting
off, added, "vendendo le droghe." I asked him to repeat
his last phrase. Appearing somewhat startled, he began to
apologize for having spoken so quickly that I hadnít been
able to understand.
not my looks, certainly my accent betrayed that I was a foreigner.
I tried to assure him that I thought I had understood, but
asked again that he repeat his last phrase. Slowly, deliberately,
gazing into my eyes, he repeated, "vendendo le droghe."
He had said what I thought I had heard: "selling drugs." I
had wanted to be sure.
head fell, his eyes avoiding my gaze. He blurted out the feelings
behind his tearsóworthlessness and shame. He had done evil
things for money. He had hurt children by selling drugs. How
could God forgive him? How could anyone ever forgive him,
love him, even look at him?
tears became a torrent. I wanted only to listen lovingly,
to pray with him honestly and sincerely, to minister to him
Godís forgiveness. I reached out and took his hands in mine.
Slowly, hesitantly, he raised his head and looked into my
ĎWhen I Was in Sin...í
I held the hands of one who hated his very being, as I listened
to a man who described his whole life as worthless, as I looked
through my own tears upon the face of one who had come to
the Portiuncula seeking the mercy of God, I saw before me
another Francis. I saw before me not a 13th-century Francis
but a desperate young man seeking to change his life. I saw
not the merchantís son seeking a knightís glory and imprisoned
in Perugia but rather a wayward son seeking self-glory and
imprisoned by his own self-hatred. I saw not the Francis who
in his Testament had written, "When I was in sin, the
Lord led me...," but the Francis before me who had been led
by the Lord to sit there and to pray, "Bless me, Father...."
I beheld the power of grace opening his heart, healing his wounds, calling him forth.
Photo Illustration by Tom Vogel
the image of Francis? It did not come from me. It came to
me as gift in that moment of grace. The image presented itself
and, informed by that vision, I began to speak with "my" Francis.
I explained that centuries before a young man from Assisi,
who later would be revered throughout the world, who touched
countless lives through his gentle being, spoke similar words.
same Francis, also in his early 20ís, sought to change the
way he lived. He too felt worthless and separated from God.
He too felt that he was "no good," speaking in his Testament
about his entire life before his conversion as "when I was
explained that we do not know why Francis so devalued his
former life. I wondered aloud if Francis had perhaps killed
someone in battle or felt overwhelmed by his own participation
in war where so many lives had been lost. I explained how
the details did not matter, but only that Francis thought
of himself as worthless, that he experienced his own profound
the young man before me now, Francis too felt worthless, alone,
hating who he had become. Yet he came to know more profoundly
Godís mercy, Godís forgiveness and love. I spoke about how
Francis had wanted everyone to know Godís goodness and abundant
love, how he had asked the pope specifically for this special
indulgence so that people would be assured of Godís forgiveness,
could celebrate Godís love and begin again to serve the Lord.
times my Francis looked into my eyes and watched my tears.
At times, he bowed his head and sobbed. I continued to speak
to my Francis about Assisiís Francis. I told him how Francisí
vision of his own life changed, how he turned to God and began
to see people and all of creation differently, how it all
began with him realizing that he was "in sin" but that God
loved him. I reminded him that the God who had led Francis
among the lepers had led him here to the basilica. God, who
had shown mercy to this Francis, had already touched his heart
in leading him to seek forgiveness. As St. Francis had done,
so too could he now turn from sin and seek to follow in the
footprints of the Lord.
prayerful, teary silence followed. Then he spoke. Tears again
streamed down his face, but now he cried tears of joy. With
a peaceful exuberance, he spoke about feeling new, cleansed,
hopeful. He started to describe hopes and dreams. He wanted
to change his life, to abandon all that had been and to find
a way to help people.
The Miracle of Forgiveness
I donít know how long we talked. I do know that we were on sacred ground, in a holy place. The voice which had spewed self-hatred now reflected an inner peace. The eyes which had evidenced only pain and despair now sparkled with hope.
I witnessed the miracle of forgiveness. Before my eyes, grace transformed his soul. I beheld the power of grace opening his heart, healing his wounds, calling him forth. He now believed that even he could be forgiven by God.
He started to express thanks. I wondered aloud about my being there: the last-minute invitation, the change in plans, the chance that he should be in my line, the image of Francis given me. I expressed my belief that all is grace.
Your Own Little Portion
Hours later my friend appeared in the basilica and signaled for my attention. After many more confessions, I was able to break away and accompany him outside to witness the sea of young people gathered in the piazza.
Having been inside all day, I was surprised and delighted at how beautiful the late afternoon seemed. My friend reiterated that he thought I was crazy for hearing confessions all day and missing such a glorious day in Assisi. I smiled.
As we began our journey home, I tried to describe my celebration of the Feast of Pardon. For me, the whole day had been a gift. I could not have imagined a better celebration. He remained unconvinced. We rode for a while in prayerful silence. As I remembered the day, my heart filled with gratitude and I broke out in song, my friend joining me in singing Francisí great canticle.
I suspect that words suffice only for those who have themselves glimpsed this experience of grace. Perhaps words speak most clearly to the hearts of those who have known the transforming power of Godís forgiving love.
Perhaps you will see beyond my young Francis, my moment in the basilica, to moments in your own life which have been times of grace, times when someone turned from being "in sin" to begin a new life in Christ. I hope you will be touched and blessed, know it to be holy ground, a sacred place. May you too visit a Portiuncula of your own to celebrate the feast of pardon, the gift of grace.
Robert M. Stewart,
O.F.M., is an associate professor of theology at St. Bonaventure
University in New York. He has a Ph.D. in theology from the
Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.
The Portiuncula Indulgence:
Legend, Tradition and Rubrics
The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, built where the first friars gathered around Francis, now surrounds the chapel.
Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
FRANCIS SAID, "HOLY father, if it please your
Holiness, my wish is that, because of the great things
which God has done in this place, all those who shall
come here with lowly and contrite hearts shall have remission
of all their sins, and that there shall be no dispute
about this." And the pope said, "I grant you that it shall
This is the testimony of the Lord James, priest of Santa Lucia di Colle, given on August 14, 1277, and included in the fourth revised edition of St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies, often called the Omnibus. Itís good to have, since nowhere in Francisí own writings or in the early biographies by Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure, or even in the whimsical Fioretti, is the Portiuncula Indulgence mentioned.
And it is an incredible story. Prior to this indulgence with its simple requirements, the only such indulgence was offered for participation in a Crusade! And it was known only by word of mouth until 1921, according to Franciscan scholar Murray Bodo, O.F.M.
And now the privilege extends beyond the Portiuncula to churches throughout the world. The indulgenceóa remission of the temporal punishment for sin if all the conditions are fulfilledómay be gained by the faithful from noon August 1 to midnight August 2 through a devout visit to a parish church, a cathedral or some other oratory (such as a chapel of the Franciscans). An Our Father, the Creed and another prayer of oneís choice are to be prayed. Reception of the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, as well as prayer for the intention of the Holy Father, are to happen within several days of the visit (see Enchiridion of Indulgences, especially #65).
In Tales of St. Francis: Ancient Tales for Contemporary Living (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1992), Father Bodo writes, "Though present Church practice does not emphasize the granting of indulgences, especially those attached to a particular place rather than to the practice of virtue, thousands of pilgrims still flock to Assisi on the day of the Portiuncula Pardon, some crawling on their knees through the large basilica to the Portiuncula chapel, which rests under the central dome."
Francis would have been pleased that all who come with lowly and contrite hearts are finding pardon.