In June 2015, Pope Francis traveled to northern Italy to visit a Waldensian Church. While visiting, on behalf of the Catholic Church, he ask for their forgiveness. (In an earlier post, I provided a brief history of the Waldensians and their relationship to Mormonism.)
The Waldensians were a medieval religious movement that was heavily persecuted by the Catholic Church. To quote John Milton, writing about the slaughter of 1,700 Waldensians at the hands of the Catholic Duke of Savoy:
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones/Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold . . . who kept thy truth so pure of old.
The small sect is viewed as an important precursor to the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Today there are only a few Waldensians scattered between northern Italy, South America, and the USA (where they are affiliated with the Presbyterian Church).
So why did Pope Francis feel the need to apologize? According to Ed Simon, writing for religiondispatches.org:
The Pope’s namesake, St. Francis, was a contemporary of Waldensian founder Peter Waldo, and in many ways they shared a similar theological perspective. Earlier Franciscans were often marked as heretics, and in many ways it’s a contingency of history that has one group gaining approval and the other being persecuted.
The apology was an acknowledgement of this historical irony.
Is this apology unique in Catholic Church history? Has the Church previously been too proud to ask for forgiveness. Nope.
Previously, popes have apologized on numerous occasions, most notably for:
- the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade,
- the Church’s treatment of Galileo,
- the many persecutions which attended the Catholic Counter-reformation and the early modern wars of religion, and
- the Church’s role in the African slave trade.
While the papal apology to the Waldensians is not unique, it does demonstrate the Pope’s commitment to ecumenicalism.