The universal Church’s celebration of the Feast of St Mary of the Angels goes back 800 years, to the original Church of St Mary of the Angels, which was also known as the Portiuncula (which means ‘little portion’, for it was built on a tiny piece of land).
It has been recorded that Francis of Assisi petitioned Pope Innocent III, saying, “Holy Father, 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 replied, “I grant you that it shall be so.” Some cardinals were shocked at the idea of such an easily obtained forgiveness of sins and pardoning of all due punishments. But the Pope agreed with Francis that God’s healing love was indeed freely flowing, freely available to all, and thus should be freely given.
That year, on the Feast of the Portiuncula (the Feast of St Mary of the Angels), Francis addressed the people, saying, “Brothers, I wish to send you all to Paradise, and I announce to you a great gift obtained from the mouth of the Supreme Pontiff.”
The Plenary Indulgence Francis obtained is what we refer to today as the Portiuncula Indulgence.
At the threshold of the door of the original little Church of St Mary of the Angels, the words hic locus sanctus est are inscribed, Latin for ‘This place is holy’. Above the doorway appear the words haec est porta vitae aeternae, Latin for ‘This is the doorway to eternal life’.
Over the centuries, the Portiuncula Indulgence has come to be extended to all Franciscan churches throughout the world for eight days before and after the Feast of St Mary of the Angels on 2 August every year, for all perpetuity.
As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger: “The Portiuncula and the Indulgence that began there became a task for the salvation of others above and beyond one’s own, thereby leading to the discovery of the identity of oneself.
“This means that one no longer asks, ‘Will I be saved?’ but ‘What does God ask of me so that others may be saved?’
“The Indulgence leads to the communion of saints, to the mystery of vicarious substitution, to prayer as a way of becoming one with Christ and his will. He invites us to participate in the weaving of the new white linen cloth that is the new humanity in whose simplicity is true beauty.”