1. The Portiuncula indulgence, which we can gain every year on the first Sunday of August, we owe to the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. In the year 513 four hermits who had visited the holy places in Palestine, came to Italy and settled down in Spoleto, in the vicinity of Assisium. There they built a little chapel, which afterwards came into the possession of the Benedictines and had various names, of which the most common was The Portiuncula church. The Benedictines held possession of it up to the thirteenth century. About that time there lived in Assisi a very pious and holy man, named Francis. In the year 1210 he founded a new Order, the Order of the Friars Minor, at present known throughout the whole world under the name of the Franciscan Order. As this saint esteemed poverty and lowliness above all, he greatly loved the poor little Portiuncula church and besought the Benedictine Abbot to let him and the brothers of his Order have the little church for their use, which request the Abbot cheerfully granted. From that date the little Portiuncula church, which in course of time was enlarged and beautified, has remained in the possession of the Franciscans.
It was in this little church that St. Francis implored of God the Portiuncula indulgence. One day (it was in October, 1221) while he was bitterly weeping in his cell over poor, unfortunate sinners, an angel suddenly appeared and told him that the Son of God in company with his Virgin Mother and a host of angels had visibly descended into the Portiuncula church and would permit him to appear before His throne of grace. Without delay the saint repaired to the little church and found there all as the angel had told him. Full of holy awe he threw himself upon his face and adored Jesus most profoundly. Jesus looked graciously upon him and permitted him to ask any favor, with the assurance of obtaining the object of his request. The saint took courage and begged that all sinners visiting the church and confessing their sins with a contrite heart might receive full pardon. Jesus replied to him: "Francis, you ask much, but I will favor 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 wonderful apparition disappeared; no one was more rejoiced than Francis. The next day in company with one of his brothers he hastened to Pope Honorius III. and, prostrate before him, besought him to proclaim that every one visiting the church and there confessing his sins with a contrite heart would be as pure from all sin and punishments as he was immediately after baptism. Honorius was astonished at this strange petition, and hesitated to grant it. But Francis said: "What I ask, I do not ask of myself; our Lord Jesus Christ sends me to you and commands me to make this request." The Pope having been convinced of the truth of his speech, granted his petition and ordered that the little church should be solemnly consecrated and the indulgence proclaimed for the second day of August. From that time pilgrims from all parts of the world flocked to the Portiuncula church in order to gain the indulgence, and numberless were the conversions which occurred at that shrine of grace. In order to make this indulgence more accessible to the faithful, the Popes subsequently extended it to all the churches of the Franciscans. Afterwards it was extended to all parish churches, and the first Sunday of August was appointed as the day for gaining it.
2. The Portiuncula indulgence has a miraculous origin. History says that Jesus, Mary and many angels appeared to St. Francis, that Jesus granted his petition for the indulgence and ordered him to ask the Pope to sanction it. Is this credible? Certainly; and so credible that every reasonable doubt is excluded. The Sacred Scriptures mention many similar apparitions. They frequently speak of apparitions of the angels in the Old and the New Testament. We also read of Christ, that after his Resurrection he appeared to the Apostles and to many other persons, and, long after his Ascension, to St. Paul on his way to Damascus. In the lives of the saints apparitions are very common. Our age especially is rich in apparitions of the Blessed Virgin, which cannot be denied, because they have occurred in different places, and are still occurring, and are certified to by a multitude of perfectly credible persons and confirmed by manifest miracles. Who would reject the history of the Portiuncula indulgence because in it there is mention made of a miraculous apparition?
Moreover, let us consider that it is St. Francis that appeals to this apparition as a fact, and upon the strength of it asks of the Pope the confirmation of the indulgence. Who could believe that this saint would have made himself guilty of such a base misrepresentation, that he would allege an apparition with which he had not been favored? How could this be reconciled with the character of a man who was so sincere and humble and who scarcely knew dissimulation by name? Or how could God have favored this saint, if he had been an impostor, with so many miracles and even with the sacred marks of his wounds?
Finally, the disciples and contemporaries of St. Francis confirm these apparitions. The learned and pious Pope Benedict XIV. says: "This history (of the Portiuncula indulgence) is fully proved by the testimony of Peter Galvani, who heard St. Francis preach and announce the said indulgence, as also by the testimony of two members of the Order., who related that in the year 1277 they heard the whole history from Father Matthew, the companion of St. Francis. Besides, the Church herself vouches for the reality of these apparitions and of everything connected with them, since she has sanctioned the indulgence and even to this day exhorts the faithful to gain it. The Portiuncula indulgence is of course a plenary indulgence. He who gains it obtains the remission of all the temporal punishments that he would be obliged to atone for either here or in Purgatory, and can, if he sins no more, go immediately to heaven after his death. Certainly this is a great grace, which the Portiuncula indulgence has in common with all other plenary indulgences. But this indulgence has some prerogatives which other plenary indulgences have not, and we will now consider them.
1. The Portiuncula indulgence is the first plenary indulgence that was ever granted in the Church. There were indeed indulgences at all times, but they were only partial, and only a partial remission of the temporal punishments could be obtained by them. But, as already remarked, he who gains the Portiuncula indulgence is freed from all temporal punishments and becomes as pure as after holy baptism. This was also the reason why Pope Honorius was astonished when St. Francis petitioned for the confirmation of this indulgence, for such an indulgence, up to that time, bad been entirely unknown. It was only after he had come to the conviction that Jesus Christ himself wished it, that he granted the petition of the saint and confirmed the indulgence.
2. This indulgence comes immediately from Christ and was granted by Him in person. It is true, all indulgences have their origin from Christ; for it is to his merits we owe not only the remission of sin and of eternal punishment but also the remission of temporal punishment, therefore indulgences have their origin in Him. Again, it is He who gave to St. Peter and his successors the plenary power of binding and loosing, therefore also the power of granting indulgences, in these words: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven." Mall. 16: 19. Every indulgence, therefore, that the Pope grants, comes from Christ, not immediately, however, as is the case with the Portiuncula indulgence, which St. Francis obtained from Christ himself, the Pope only confirming it. On account of its origin the Portiuncula indulgence is more venerable than other indulgences.
3. This indulgence is granted for all time to come, i. e., until the consummation of the world. In the primitive ages of Christianity it was not customary to grant indulgences for ever, they could be gained only during a certain period. It was with them as it is with our jubilee indulgences, which are limited to a certain time, and which, after the lapse of that space of time, cannot be gained. When St. Francis preached in the Portiuncula church in the presence of several bishops, and solemnly announced to the assembled people the indulgence granted by Christ and confirmed by his vicar on earth, the Pope, and added that this indulgence could be gained on the second day of August for all time to come, the bishops were shocked at this addition and would have it only for ten years. They therefore raised their voice and were going to say, only for ten years, but miraculously guided by God, they unanimously cried out, for all time to come! The Portiuncula, indulgence, which has already continued for more than six hundred years, will continue till the end of the world, and even shortly before the coming of Christ to judgment this indulgence could still be gained.
4. The Portiuncula indulgence is comparatively easy to be gained. In all other indulgences several conditions are to be complied with, if we wish to gain them. He who wishes to gain a Jubilee indulgence must visit either several churches, or one church several times, fast a certain number of days, and give alms. He who wishes to gain a confraternity indulgence must belong to the confraternity and diligently keep its rules. Thus, for instance, the members of the Rosary confraternity must say the whole Rosary of fifteen decades, in order to gain the indulgences of the confraternity. All these more or less difficult conditions are not necessary for the Portiuncula indulgence; all that is required to gain it is worthily to receive the Sacraments of Penance and of the Blessed Eucharist and to say in a church of the Franciscans or in the parish church the customary prayers for an indulgence. What could be easier than the gaining of this indulgence? How would it be possible for our divine Savior to require less of us in order to remit to us not only sin and eternal punishment, but even all temporal punishments?
5. Finally, what distinguishes the Portiuncula, indulgence especially from all others is, that on the day on which it is granted, it can be gained not only once, but oftener. You can gain other indulgences only once on the same day, but the Portiuncula indulgence you can gain on the first Sunday of August, and that, too, as often as on that day you visit a church of the Franciscans, or the parish church, and there pray for some time according to the intention of the Holy Father. The Congregation of the Council has twice so decided, on the 17th of July, 1700, and again on the 4th of December, 1723. In fact, when doubts were submitted to the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences as to whether the faithful who visit a church of the Franciscans on the second Sunday of August can obtain the indulgence as often as the visit is repeated, the answer was in the affirmative, February 22nd, 1847, and it was declared at the same time that it is not necessary to receive Communion in any of the churches of the Franciscans. Pope Pius IX. confirmed these decisions by a decree of the same Congregation, dated July 12th, 1849. It is indeed true that on one day we can gain a plenary indulgence for ourselves only once, but this does not interfere with the doctrine that the Portiuncula indulgence can be gained more that once on the same day, for we may apply it to the souls in purgatory, if we gain it the second and the third time, etc.
The Portiuncula indulgence then is a great grace of which we should avail ourselves every year. Try to gain it. See above all, that you make a humble, contrite and sincere confession, for a good confession is the first and most necessary requisite for the forgiveness of sins and the gaining of the indulgence. Receive Holy Communion with the most profound humility and adoration. Say the prayers for an indulgence with devotion and sentiments of repentance, according to the intention of the Holy Father, and relying on the merits of Jesus Christ, on the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis, and the other saints, beseech God with confidence to impart to you the indulgence and to deliver you from all temporal punishments. Promise to be thankful to him for this grace all the days of your life by carefully keeping your conscience free from even small faults. Visit the church several times and after repeating the prayers for an indulgence apply it to the poor souls that they may partake of the grace thereof. Thus the Portiuncula indulgence will be to you a key with which you will open heaven, both for yourselves and for many poor souls. Amen.