Virgin with Angels

------¤¤¤¤¤¤¤¤¤------- Our Lady, Queen of Angels -------¤¤¤¤¤¤¤¤¤-------

A Little History of This Popular, Traditional Devotion

Excerpt adapted from an article of the same title that appeared in  the July-August, 1994 issue of THE CATHOLIC HEARTH,
written by Diana Serra Cary:

In Franciscan annals August 2 is one of the most important days of the year, for it is the Feast of St. Mary of the Angels, the anniversary of the dedication of the birthplace of the Franciscan Order, the day of a special Indulgence, the Portiuncula Indulgence . We have extracted from the author's article the portion relating the story of St. Francis of Assisi and Our Lady, Queen of Angels.

. . . No subject was more popular at that time than that of Our Lady's death, Assumption, and Coronation. At Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris three large carvings are dedicated to the Coronation of Our Lady in Heaven, while no less than five great sculptured groups commemorate her death and Assumption. In an exquisitely beautiful stone sculpture at the Cathedral, the Virgin is assumed into Heaven, standing with folded hands inside a fluted shell or aureole of glory, which is itself borne upward by a multitude of Angels.

When the Mother of God is seated at last on her throne beside her Divine Son, most artists envisioned an Angel placing the crown upon her brow while Christ raises His Hand in blessing.

The original pattern, both artistically and devotionally, for the title "Queen of Angels" combined elements from the traditional version of the Assumption, with the impressive imagery used by St. John the Evangelist in his deeply mystical Apocalypse. In it he describes "a woman clothed with the sun, the head a crown of twelve stars." Still later, St. Michael and his Angels do battle with the seven-headed dragon seeking to destroy the woman and devour her son. "And the dragon and his Angels battled and they prevailed not, nor was their place found any more in Heaven."

From this description of "The Woman," artists and writers of the Church drew inspiration.

When the Franciscan Order became the special defender of the doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception, this image of the woman clothed in the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, became the symbol and banner of their crusade. There is a remote possibility that the inclusion of these symbols came directly from St. Francis himself.

Shortly after Francis had given up his worldly life and began to live for God, he came upon the ruined chapel in the district around Assisi which had been given the name Santa Maria degli Angelis, or "Our Lady of the Angels." Entering the little tumble-down church, which was almost hidden under a tangle of flowering vines, the Saint beheld what he thought, in the golden half-light of late afternoon, must be a vision of the Queen of Heaven. It proved to be an old, old fresco which some long-dead artist had painted on the wall above the main altar. The subject is thought to be the Virgin being assumed into Heaven, accompanied by a court of Angels. This picture would coincide with the name of the chapel.

Long before the time of St. Francis the Benedictines had established a monastery near Assisi. It is possible that this chapel was in existence before the Benedictines came. On the other hand, it may have been built by them. Nevertheless, the Benedictines also owned a small plot of ground to support them which was called "the little portion" or, in Italian, Portiuncula. There for several hundred years the Benedictines remained, and probably the fresco of the Assumption on the wall of the tiny chapel was the work of one of these dedicated and talented monks.

Finally, conditions in this isolated forest spot became so unsettled it was dangerous for the monks to remain; so they moved away and sought the safety of the fortified Benedictine monastery on the nearby slopes of Mount Subasio. When St. Francis came upon the chapel, it was but a charming ruin amidst underbush.

As in the church of San Damiano, where the Lord chose to speak to Francis through an ancient Crucifix so God and His Mother made the little chapel of Our Lady of the Angels a place of inspiration and visions for the poor man of Assisi. On his first recorded visit there, a stranger is said to have come upon him wandering through the chapel, sighing and weeping. Touched by his apparent grief, the man asked what caused him to sorrow. Francis replied, "I am weeping over the sufferings of my Lord Jesus Christ, and I will not be ashamed to wander around the whole world to weep over them." The passerby was so overcome by this answer that he burst into tears and wept with Francis!
The origin of the Portiuncula Indulgence has been lost in the haze of centuries just as the origin of the chapel itself. The first written document we have regarding this Indulgence is dated October 31, 1277, some sixty years after the Indulgence is said to have been granted. As a result, many different accounts have come down to us purporting to relate the vision of St. Francis and the way in which the Pope consented to grant this Indulgence. Each author seems to relate a different version that St. Francis beheld. However, although the accounts differ in details, in substance they are the same. The one we present here is the one accepted by Joergensen in his Life of St. Francis.

One time when Francis was kneeling in prayer before the image of Our Lady, he seemed to behold men and women from every corner of the world converging upon this obscure little chapel in the Umbrian forest. He had been praying for the forgiveness of the sins of mankind when suddenly the dark interior seemed illumined by the light of a million candles. Jesus and Mary appeared in the midst of a dazzling cloud of Angels, and he heard a voice that fell like music on his soul, "What do you wish me to do to help poor sinners?" Francis hardly knew how to answer, but suddenly the words carne tumbling out and he asked the Lord to grant a full pardon to all who came to visit the church of Portiuncula and made a good confession. It then seemed that Jesus was in favor of this. He turned smilingly to His Mother and she, in turn, nodded to St. Francis and smiled.

Typical of the Saint's impetuosity and generosity of soul, he marched off to see the Pope and beg from him the coveted Indulgence. The reigning Holy Father, Honorius III, was literally dumbfounded at the request to grant such a generous Indulgence. At that time, the summer of 1216, plenary Indulgences were rarely granted by the Church. The plenary Indulgences that had been granted were given to those fighting men who took up the cross and the sword and went as crusaders to the Holy Land. Later, this hard won Indulgence was extended to those who remained at home but helped the Crusaders in supplying men and alms.

Francis, however, was not to be refused. The Lord Himself had promised Him, and the Roman Curia was bound to relent! The Pope finally yielded and left it to the astonished cardinals to limit the application of the new Indulgence. The date set was from vespers of the first of August until sundown on the second. It is said that Francis chose this date because the Feast of the Chains of St. Peter (his release from prison) is celebrated on the first of August, and Francis felt that sinners should also be freed from the chains of their sins on the day following this great Feast. Furthermore, this date was the anniversary of the consecration of the Portiuncula chapel.

As Francis took his leave of the Holy Father, after obtaining the unprecedented privilege, the Pope is said to have asked if he did not wish some document to prove that his request had been officially granted. With characteristic Franciscan light-heartedness came the Saint's reply: "I need nothing more than your word. Our Lady is the parchment, Christ the notary, and the Angels our witnesses!"

When the first great August first arrived, seven bishops gathered in the little chapel of Our Lady of the Angels to dedicate it as "Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula." And St. Francis, overjoyed, cried out to the crowd that overflowed the narrow building, "I want to make all of you go to Heaven!"

But at the time there seemed something almost scandalous in this Indulgence, and conservative prelates did little to make it known. In St. Francis' own lifetime the Portiuncula Indulgence was enjoyed by comparatively few Christians. Travel and communications were slow, and not even such good news as a plenary Indulgence could travel swiftly over the mud-choked trails that passed for roads in thirteenth-century Europe. Later, of course, the Indulgence was extended to all Franciscan churches on August first and second.

This chapel was the Saint's favorite spot on earth. It was here he heard the Gospel that caused him to establish his First Order, following the command of Christ to go into the world and preach and Baptize all men, taking neither gold nor script nor an extra cloak for the journey. Here Francis received his first brothers, and from here he sent them into the world. In this chapel, St. Clare knelt before the image of Our Lady of the Angels, and on the floor her golden tresses fell beneath the scissors plied by Francis himself. Indeed, Francis placed such a high value on this chapel, which he had rebuilt with his own hands, that he wrote a special rule just for "Portiuncula."

It was scarcely two centuries and a half later that an Italian Third Order member, recently named the Admiral of the Ocean Seas by the King and Queen of Spain, spent the entire night of August second, 1492, in prayer in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady in the port town of Palos on the coast of Spain. On the morning of the third, he and his cockleshell fleet of three caravels sailed down the golden tide of the Rio Tinto, past the Franciscan monastery of Our Lady of the Angels of La Rabida. Here good friends were chanting the hour of prime-----friars who had gone to court for the Admiral, Christopher Columbus, had cared for his son, Diego, and who would now be praying to Our Lady of the Angels to watch over the precarious enterprise which was launched on such a great Franciscan Feast day. Every man aboard the fleet had confessed his sins and received Holy Communion, and thanks to the plenary Indulgence obtained by St. Francis (now extended to all Franciscan churches as well as the chapel of the Portiuncula), some of those men who would not return from that perilous voyage were able at last to make the port of Heaven.

The sons of Francis followed quickly in the wake of the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Nina, and soon hundreds of grey, brown, and blue-robed friars were working in the newly discovered regions. With them went the ancient devotion to Our Lady of the Angels. Mexico abounded with chapels dedicated to her. In our own state of New Mexico, a mission outpost in the Indian village of Pecos, not far from Santa Fe, was given her name as early as 1617. In 1769, the Spanish expedition to Upper California, under the command of Gaspar de Portola, arrived at a great plain, well watered by a fine river, on the second of August of that year. For this reason the river was given the name of the Rio Porciuncula (the Spanish spelling). Later, on September 4, 1781, when some forty-eight soldiers and settlers founded a town on this one-time camping site, they gave it the name El Puebla de Nuestra Senora, la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula, (The Town of Our Lady, Queen of Angels of the River of Portiuncula).

There was little to recommend the poverty-stricken village in those days, and it could hardly live up to such an impressively long title. Gradually it was shortened to the simpler "Los Angeles," and still later in our own time-conscious age to the initials, "L.A."

But the church in the old plaza, facing the Union Station, is a worthy successor to the original chapel of Our Lady of the Angels. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed twenty-four hours a day. Worshipers of many nationalities crowd the chapel for 'round-the-clock adoration of their Lord. The real patroness of this great city of six million souls is still she who has Angels wherever she goes, the woman clothed in the sun, with the moon beneath her feet.

No one has ever better described the full significance of this devotion to Mary than St. Francis himself when he said to Pope Honorius: "I need nothing more than your word. Our Lady is the parchment, Christ the notary, and the Angels our witnesses!"