The Franciscan Usus Pauper: Using poverty to put life in the perspective of plenitude

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In general, poverty is approached as a pernicious problem. But poverty has always been a spiritual way of life too. For people like Francis of Assisi poverty was not only a problem, but also a mystery of a life in the perspective of perfection. Listening to his story may enrich social, political, and economic approaches to poverty, for it reveals some tactics for turning an obvious curse into a blessing. Focusing on the poor life of Francis and the Franciscans in the thirteenth century, and its early monetary economy, this article tries to come to know, alleviate, and value poverty. Sometimes a phenomenological description is needed to gain a deeper understanding of structures of monetary deprivation, of sharing gifts and needs, and of encountering a mystery. When Francis left the world, he learned that poverty is a fall depriving him of his fundamental relations. But he chose not to approach his poverty as a problem that must be solved, because this would mean that he had to turn himself into a 'priceable object' and 'sell himself'. On the contrary, Francis chose to wait and listen to the voice of God and of the people that he met on the road: poor, merchants, pilgrims, and lepers. He learned that poverty is also a call expressing a longing for presence. Filling the emptiness of this longing with food and things may not be a sufficient response to the calling. Francis's response to the calling transformed the fall into a descent to his own self and to others, and the problem into a mystery. A mystery is not a problem to be solved, but a question calling for an encounter. A first effect of the way Francis lived his poverty was that young men came to join him. They learned that approaching people without having any possessions was a very effective way to truly meet them: poverty revealed in encounters. To live without property became the mission of the brotherhood: an economy of trust, in which the act of sharing gifts, as well as needs was the motor. This mission eventually became a pastoral mission among the people in the cities, especially merchants. Living without property became very easy, because the cities would provide the brothers with everything they needed, and more. To save the original spirit of vivere sine proprio, the Franciscans developed the usus pauper (restricted use), which was a way of living a life in conformity with the poor in their new social and economic environment. In our times, people are learning to re-value practices of 'de-ownership'. The Franciscan practice of usus pauper may help them understand why and how especially someone who lives a life according to the standards of the poor can be there for poor people, and alleviate the poverty that they share: he or she knows his or her real needs, values matters and people realistically, understands the importance of sharing, and is capable of seeing all people and all matters in the perspective of abundance.

Original languageEnglish
Article number77
Number of pages7
JournalPalgrave Communications
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Franciscan spirituality
  • Usus pauper
  • Poverty, optimizing, adapting, spiritual poverty, material poverty


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