Pope Francis recently apologized to the Waldensians. They had their beginnings in the 12th century, anticipating many of the teachings of the Reformation four hundred years later, which the group then joined. The Waldensians suffered centuries of persecution from the Roman Catholic Church, culminating in the Easter massacre in the Piedmont of Italy in 1655, when some 1,700 men, women, children, and infants were slaughtered in the most brutal ways imaginable. (See the Wikipedia article linked, above.)
Read this chilling 17th-century catalogue of the atrocities. Then, after the jump, read the sonnet that John Milton wrote about this mass martyrdom, given, along with a news story about the Pope’s asking for forgiveness from the 30,000 Waldensians still in Italy. (There are more in Germany, the United States, Uruguay, and the the Pope’s native Argentina.)
Pope Francis made news this week for something other than his environmental encyclical. He offered a rare papal apology.
“On the part of the Catholic Church, I ask your forgiveness, I ask it for the non-Christian and even inhuman attitudes and behavior that we have showed you,” the pope said in an address to Waldensians, in Turin, Italy, earlier this week.
Founded by Peter Waldo, a merchant from Lyon, France, in the 12th century, the Waldensians have maintained their identity in the face of severe persecution. Waldensians focused on preaching, voluntary poverty, and faithfulness to the Bible’s teaching. They translated the Bible into the language of their people (Franco-Provençal) and rejected papal teaching on purgatory and transubstantiation. Though the Third Lateran Council (1179) commanded them to stop preaching, they refused. Pope Lucius III excommunicated them in 1184. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at the Reformation they joined the cause of Calvin and Luther.
But the worst was yet to come. Roman Catholics persecuted Waldensians mercilessly, most infamously in the Piedmont, a region in what is now western Italy. In 1655, after failing in his attempts to coerce the Waldensians to take mass, Charles Emmanuel II, the Duke of Savoy, commanded their slaughter. Samuel Morland’s 1658 account of the massacre is not for the faint of heart. Leaving ample room for 17th century exaggeration, it’s still no wonder the massacre prompted none other than John Milton to put quill to page and write, “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones / Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold.”
And persecution didn’t end in the 17th century. Italian Waldensians still commemorate Feb. 17 as the day they received civil (but not religious) liberty, from then King Carlo Alberto—in 1848. The Italian Constitution of 1948 finally recognized the religious rights of Waldensians, but it was only in 1984, when Italy and the Holy See revised the Lateran Treaty, that Waldensians gained equal political footing with the Roman Catholic Church.About 30,000 Waldensians live in Italy today. The group also lives in Argentina, and Pope Francis’ connection to the Waldensians stretches back to his time there. The Waldensian Church of the Rio de La Plata has about 15,000 members in Argentina and neighboring Uruguay. The church has deep roots in Argentina: the first Waldensians arrived from Italy in 1856, many years before the pope’s own father, Mario José Bergoglio. Waldensian Pastor Dario Barolin observed the pope’s connection to the Waldensians shortly after his election.
“The first thing I thought of was his relationship with Norberto Berton, a Waldensian Pastor from Argentina,” Barolin said. “They were good friends and had engaged many times in theological discussions as well as conversations about the many other subjects friends talk about.” Barolin also noted the kindness of the pope to the Waldensian leader in his old age: “I also remembered that it was because of Jorge Bergoglio that Norberto was invited to live in a retirement home for Catholic priests.”
On the Late Massacre in Piedmont