Francis asks forgiveness for Waldensian persecutions, killings

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has movingly asked forgiveness for historic persecutions and killings the Catholic church perpetrated against Waldensian Christians, a European evangelical movement and church that one pope more than 830 years ago excommunicated and another 430 years ago ordered exterminated.

Becoming the first pontiff to visit one of the denomination's communities Monday morning in Turin, Francis directly asked pardon on behalf of all Catholicism.

"Reflecting on the story of our relations we cannot but grieve in front of the ... violence committed in the name of our faith, and ask the Lord to give us the grace to recognize all sins and to know to ask forgiveness between each other," the pope said.

Then, speaking precisely, Francis continued: "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."

"In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us!" he asked.

Francis' request for pardon caps a long period of history, as the Waldensians were brutally persecuted by the Catholic church for some seven centuries.

Beginning as a spiritual movement in the 1170s under the Frenchman Peter Waldo, they originally sought recognition under the Catholic church but were firmly rebuked by a succession of popes.

In the year 1487, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull for the extermination of members of the church, one of several such orders issued by pontiffs and Catholic political sovereigns over centuries.

Today, Waldensians number in the tens of thousands and have communities around the world. They are headquartered in a small town in the north of Italy's Piedmont region, the province of the country where Turin is located.

Francis has been visiting Turin, a historic city on Italy's northwestern French and Swiss border Sunday and Monday.

Speaking before the pope's remarks Monday, the pastor of the Waldensian community in Turin mentioned the church's long struggles with the Catholic church, including its excommunication and the killing of martyrs.

"What was the sin of the Waldensians?" Pastor Eugenio Bernardini asked. "It was being a movement of popular evangelization, carried out by lay people."

Bernardini then spoke of many ecumenical efforts between Catholics and Waldensians in the modern era, and even spoke of Francis' apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, citing the passage in which the pontiff called on Christians to live together in "reconciled diversity."

"Every church has need of the other to realize its own vocation," said Bernardini. "We cannot be Christians alone."

In his talk, Francis also told the Waldensians that church unity "is fruit of the Holy Spirit and does not mean uniformity."

The pope also called on the two churches to collaborate in evangelization and in helping those most in need.

"We can work always more united ... in the service of humanity that suffers, to the poor, the sick and migrants," Francis said.

The pope ended his remarks to the Waldensians by asking that "the Lord might grant all of us his mercy and his peace."

Francis returns later on Monday to Rome, some 450 miles south, after spending time privately in Turin with some members of his extended family. Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina, the pope is the son of parents whose families were both from the Piedmont region.

The pontiff's visit to Turin has been marked by many poignant moments, including a call on laborers not to blame migrants for any troubles they have with work and remarks to young people about why they cannot trust modern culture or the world's governments.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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