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A Big Step Forward

Pope-Waldensians

An historic event took place in July of this year in the city of Turin, Northern Italy. For the first time ever a Pope visited a Waldensian Protestant Church and furthermore received a blessing from a woman, Alessandra Trotta, a Methodist Church Deacon.

To recognise the significance of the event it would be necessary to know the history of the Waldensians, a bible-based group, founded in the 12th century. They were regarded as heretics and endured centuries of persecution, culminating in 1655 in a campaign of genocide by the governing powers. The massacre of unarmed men, women and children shocked the Protestant half of Europe, drawing a strong diplomatic protest from Oliver Cromwell in England and inspiring the angry poem by John Milton which commences:
"Avenge, O Lord, Thy slaughtered Saints, whose bones Lie scattered in the Alpine valleys cold"

I probably read the poem at school (it is to be found in Palgrave's Golden Treasury, one of my schoolbooks) but knew little about the Waldensians until I met an old acquaintance from my student days in Newcastle, by then a Presbyterian minister in Barnet. During the summer months he was engaged in leading groups of (mostly young) volunteers who were helping to build a centre of pilgrimage and reconciliation near the Waldensian town of Torre Pelice. The chosen name of the project was 'Agape', the New Testament word for love. The centre has been open for over 50 years now and attracts people from all over the world. It was the inspiration behind the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, another place where religious intolerance has torn people apart.

In 1979 the Italian Methodist Church signed a Deed of Union with the Waldensians, now sharing a common ministry and Synod. The Methodist Recorder of 24th July 2015 has a photograph of Pope Francis and Alessandra moving towards each other, hands outstretched in greeting and looking as if they could scarcely believe what was happening but nevertheless filled with an immense joy. This is surely the message of Christmas — however bitter and painful the past, a new beginning is always possible.

Bob Weighton

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