August 1, 2018

The Story of the Portiuncula

(From Assisi Compilation 56)
Seeing that the Lord willed to increase the number of brothers, blessed Francis told them: "My dearest brothers and sons, I see that the Lord wants us to increase. Therefore, it seems good and religious to me to obtain from the bishop, or the canons of San Rufino, or from the abbot of the monastery of Saint Benedict, some small and poor little church where the brothers can say their Hours and only have next to it a small and poor little house built of mud and branches where they can sleep and care for their needs.
So blessed Francis got up and went to the bishop of Assisi. The same speech he made to the brothers he made to the bishop. "Brother," the bishop answered him, "I do not have any church that I can give you." Then he went to the canons of San Rufino and said the same thing to them. But they gave him the same answer as the bishop. He went, therefore, to the monastery of Saint Benedict on Mount Subasio, and made the same speech to the abbot he had made to the bishop and the canons, informing him also of how the bishop and the canons had responded. The abbot was moved to piety and took counsel with his brothers about this. 
As it was the will of God, they granted blessed Francis and his brothers the church of Saint Mary of the Portiuncula as the poorest little church they had. In fact, it was also the poorest little church in the area around the city of Assisi, something blessed Francis had desired for a long time. 
"Brother, we have granted your request," the abbot told blessed Francis. "But, if the Lord increases your congregation, we want this place to be the head of all your places." And this speech pleased blessed Francis and his brothers. 
Blessed Francis was overjoyed at the place granted to the brothers, especially because of the name of this church of the Mother of Christ, and because it was such a poor little church, and because of the surname it had, for it was surnamed: "of the Portiuncula." This name foreshadowed that it was to be the mother and head of the poor Lesser Brothers. It was called "Portiuncula" after the neighborhood where that church was built, which from earliest times was called "Portiuncula." Blessed Francis used to say: "This is why the Lord willed that no other church be granted to the brothers, and why the first brothers would not build any completely new church, and would not have any other but this one. For this church was a prophecy that has been fulfilled in the coming of the Lesser Brothers." And although it was poor and almost in ruins already for a long time, the people of the city of Assisi and its neighborhood had always held the church in great devotion and hold it in even greater devotion today. 
As soon as the brothers went to stay there, almost daily the Lord increased their number; and their fame and reputation spread throughout the whole valley of Spoleto. From old times, it was named Saint Mary of the Angels, and called by the local people Saint Mary of the Portiuncula. But after the brothers began to repair it, the men and women of that region would say: "Let's go to Saint Mary of the Angels." 
Although the abbot and the monks had freely granted that church to blessed Francis and his brothers without any payment or annual tax, blessed Francis, a good and experienced teacher who wished to build his house on solid rock, that is, his congregation on great poverty, every year used to send the abbot a basket full of small fish called "lasche." He did this as a sign of greater humility and poverty, so that the brothers would not have any place of their own, and would not remain in any place that was not owned by others, and thus they in no way had the power to sell it or give it away. Each year, when the brothers brought the little fish to the monks, they in turn, because of the humility of blessed Francis, who had done this of his own will, gave him and his brothers a jar filled with oil. 
We who were with blessed Francis bear witness that he spoke of that church with great conviction, because of the great preference that the Lord indicated there and revealed to him in that place, namely that among all the other churches of this world the blessed Virgin loves that church. Therefore, during his whole lifetime, he had the greatest reverence and devotion toward it. And so that the brothers would always keep its remembrance in their hearts, at his death he wanted it written in his Testament that the brothers do likewise. 
About the time of his death, in the presence of the general minister and the other brothers, he said: 
"I want to leave and bequeath to the brothers the place of Saint Mary of the Portiuncula as a testament, that it may always be held in the greatest reverence and devotion by the brothers. Our old brothers did this: for although the place itself is holy, they preserved its holiness with constant prayer day and night and by constant silence. And if, at times, they spoke after the time established for silence, they discussed with the greatest devotion and decorum matters pertaining to the praise of God and the salvation of souls. If it happened, and it rarely did, that someone began to utter useless or idle words, immediately he was corrected by another. They used to mortify the flesh not only by fasting, but also by many vigils, by cold, nakedness and manual labor. In order not to remain idle, they very frequently went and helped poor people in their fields, and sometimes these people would give them some bread for the love of God. 
"By these and other virtues, they used to sanctify themselves and the place; and others who came after them for a long time did the same, although not as much. Afterwards, however, a great number of brothers and others would come to that place more than was usual, especially when all the brothers of the religion had to visit there, as well as those who intended to join the religion. Moreover, the brothers are colder in prayer and other good works than in the past, and are more careless about exchanging idle and useless words and even worldly news. Therefore, the brothers who stay there and other religious do not hold that place in such great reverence and devotion as is proper and as I would wish."
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