In all of the hubbub surrounding the publication of Laudato si, Pope Francis’ wonderful yet controversial encyclical on the state of the environment, a small but not insignificant event took place in Turin, one that has reverberations here in North Carolina.
One of the hallmarks of Francis’ pontificate has been an ecumenical outreach to other groups of Christians and even beyond to other religions or those with no religion at all. This is on display in Laudato si in references to Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century.
Four days after the publication of his encyclical, Francis visited a community of Waldenisans in Turin. Never heard of them? It’s not surprising, since there are fewer than 50,000 worldwide. But in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Catholic Church was obsessed with stamping them out.
Their leader was Peter Waldo of Lyons. A merchant, Waldo one day heard a sermon and had a conversion experience. He renounced his wealth and founded an order that would be known as the Poor Men of Lyons, dedicated to poverty and to preaching the Gospel. In this, he is much like a man who came along 30 years later, Francis of Assisi, from whom the current pope has taken his name.
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However, Waldo bucked authority a bit too much. He commissioned the translation of the New Testament into the local Provençal dialect; he rejected certain doctrines; he preached without permission. It was this last that secured the condemnation of his sect in 1184, setting the stage for its persecution, waged on and off by the church and various governments into the 19th century.
It is for this reason Francis, as he addressed the community, said, “On the part of the Catholic church, I ask you forgiveness for the non-Christian, even non-human, attitudes and behaviors that, in history, we have had against you.”
This is a significant request, not only for its admission of guilt. Exactly 800 years ago this year, high-ranking members of the Catholic Church met in Rome for the Fourth Lateran Council. They met to hash out a number of doctrinal issues but also to address the growing threat of heretics like the Waldensians and another group called the Cathars, against whom supporters of the church were engaged in active warfare. At this council, the church affirmed its condemnation of such groups and of those who supported them.
It also called for restrictions on the activities of Jews and for Jews and Muslims living among Christians “to be distinguished in public from other people by the character of their dress,” a pivotal moment in the change in attitudes described by the historian R.I. Moore as the “Formation of a Persecuting Society” in his book of that title.
The ramifications echo to the present, as we can see spinning out of this moment the institutions that created modern notions of race, as well as increased separation between Europe’s Christian and Jewish populations, with persecutions and expulsions of Jews becoming a regular part of European life and a basic anti-Semitism prevailing on down through the Holocaust and beyond – aided and abetted by the governments of Europe, which pursued such policies toward their own ends.
Waldo’s movement was, in some ways, a catalyst, as dissent by him and others like him forced Catholic authorities to more stringently define doctrines and, in the process, to determine what would be done with deviants.
We’re not sure what happened to Waldo, but his movement was expelled
from its birthplace and wound up in the Piedmont region of modern Italy. Despite persecution, it endured across the centuries until, in the last decade of the 19th century, a group of 29 Waldensians made the voyage across the Atlantic. They settled in the mountains of North Carolina and, as more arrived, they built a church, now the Waldensian Presbyterian Church, where they could practice their religion, a church that has existed since 1895 and that reflects their unique heritage.
Their heritage is reflected in the name they gave the town, Valdese.
Every time you pass exit 111 on I-40 near Asheville, you are driving through a Carolina connection to the medieval past. Worshippers are participating in a tradition of protest that predates Protestantism – in fact, some early Protestant leaders looked back on the Waldensians as their forbears, for obvious reasons.
Now they are connected with this watershed event. In this 800th anniversary of what we might see as the institutionalization of persecution, a representative of the key institution has apologized. Of course, this is a small event for those outside the Waldensians community, but perhaps a model for similar reflection in the religious world and beyond.
Michael G. Bazemore Jr. lives, writes and teaches history in Raleigh.