Assisi: the Portziuncula

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Medieval Assisi sits astride a range of small mountains / large hills, its fortified walls overlooked by a castle atop one of the taller peaks. There, St. Francis can be imagined stripping off all indicia of his noble station before his merchant father in the square. And there, his newly-formed order of Franciscans quickly set to work constructing his basilica within just a few years of his death.

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But down on the valley floor beneath the medieval town sits one of the greatest treasures of Franciscan monasticism: the Portziuncula. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia hosted by NewAdvent.org:

It was here that on 24 Feb., 1208, St. Francis of Assisi recognized his vocation; here was for the most part his permanent abode, after the Benedictines (of the Cluny Congregation from about 1200) had presented him (about 1211) with the little chapel Portiuncula, i.e. a little portion (of land); here also he died on Saturday, 3 October, 1226. According to a legend, the existence of which can be traced back with certainty only to 1645, the little chapel of Portiuncula was erected under Pope Liberius (352-66) by hermits from the Valley of Josaphat, who had brought thither relicsfrom the grave of the Blessed Virgin. The same legend relates that the chapel passed into the possession of St. Benedict in 516.

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IMG_0863Shortly after 1290, the chapel, which measured only about twenty-two feet by thirteen and a half, became entirely inadequate to accommodate the throngs of pilgrims. In the Sixteenth Century, a basilica, Santa Maria delli Angeli, was built around the Portziuncula, to protect it and provide suitable space for pilgrims.

As I approached the tiny chapel, a group of pilgrims (American) were in the midst of celebrating mass there. It is possible to imagine the scene 800 years ago, when it would not have been surrounded by the seventh-largest church in Christendom, but simply set in a pasture, perhaps with a herd of sheep nearby.

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