Some Notes on the Waldensian Church
The Waldensian Church, today a member of both the Ecumenical Council of Geneva and the World Alliance of Reform Churches, traces its origins to the Waldensian movement founded byPeter Valdo (Pietro Valdo) of Lyon (1140-1217). In 1173 Valdo, having abandoned his life as a merchant and given all of his goods to the poor, dedicated his life to preaching along with his disciples who came to be known as the "Poor Men of Lyon". In 1177, after being warned several times by Bishop Guichard, he was expelled from the city because of his clearly anticlerical sentiments, yet this banishment had an effect opposite to that intended, and in fact served to disseminate Waldensian doctrines throughout the south of France. After a brief period of dialogue during which the Roman Catholic Church attempted to reabsorb the movement (the Third Lateran Council of 1179), at the Council of Verona in 1184 the movement was officially condemned and its adherents ex-communicated, thus forcing the Waldensians to go into hiding to escape from the Inquisition and from periodic massacres. Despite this persecution, the movement soon spread outside its area of origin, reaching into northern Italy (the Poor Men of Lombardy) and Bohemia, where it was introduced by Valdo himself. An underground network of contacts protected believers, who were able to meet for worship in secret in private homes, and made possible the spiritual assistance provided by itinerant preachers called "barbi" (the source of the term "barbetti" often applied by Roman Cathoics to the Waldensians).
Caught up in the crusade launched by Pope Innocent III against the Albigensians of Provence, the Waldensians of that region paid the price in blood to the forces of religious intolerance and were totally eradicated. The few survivors made their way toPellice, Chisone and Germanasca valleys in what is now north-west Italy and, to some extent, to the French side of the mountains. Today, they are still to be found in those areas, where they speak a Provencal dialect and profess a Protestant faith.
TheProtestant Reformation, which the Waldensians joined without hesitation, made possible a period of reorganization within the movement culminating in the Synod of Chanforan (1532) during which a Confession of Faith of a Protestant stamp was adopted, along with a church structure in line with those of the Reformed Churches of the time. Pastoral ministry was instituted, churches constructed for worship, and a Synodal model of church organization adopted.
With the coming of the Counter-Reformation, persecutions increased again. The Waldensians of Provence were exterminated during the first half of the 16th century, while in the second half of that century, Waldensians who had moved into Calabria and Puglia in southern Italy were massacred or dispersed. Emenuele Filiberto of Piedmont, unable to destroy the communities in theWaldensians valleys because of the tenacious resistance of their inhabitants, was forced to accept the "Treaty of Cavour" which guaranteed freedom of religion within the valleys but blocked any possibility of expansion outside those valleys. The treaty, however, did not stand in the way of further persecutions and in 1655, hundreds of Waldensians were killed during the "Piedmontese Easter". In 1686 the Piedmontese and French troops of Vittorio Amadeo II and Louis XIV penetrated the valleys where, having exterminated a large part of the population, they incarcerated survivors in Piedmontese prisons. This period, thus, saw the rise of a forced migration of Waldensians into Switzerland and Germany, both predominantly Protestant areas. In the summer of 1686, a small group managed to return to the valleys from Switzerland during the "Glorious Return". While the movement was completely eradicated in southern France, the Waldensians of the valleys were able to secure a treaty from the Pedmontese government in 1690 and there followed a period of relative peace and security. The Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era created problems of a doctrinal nature within all religious faiths, but for the Waldensians this was quickly followed by a renewed religious commitment in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. The "Lettere Patenti" issued by the house of Savoy in 1848 finally guaranteed freedom of action and civil rights to Waldensians.
Today, the annual Synod represents the governing entity of the Waldensian Church. The Synod is made up of pastors and lay people who elect a seven person governing board (named Tavola Valdese) under the chairmanship of the Moderator. Each office is elective and all have a limit of 7 years.
A reformed community
It is then necessary in the first place to describe the Christian community to which the population of Waldensian Valleys belongs. It is a Christian church of the Reformed type (generally called Protestant) on the order of the Calvinist churches of Switzerland, France, Scotland, Holland, etc. The fundamental principle of this church is the absolute authority given only to the Bible. In the matter of faith, doctrine, ethics and worship, the Waldenses follow therefore only the Holy Scriptures; tradition has no absolute regulative value and every reform within the Christian church may be made - according to the Waldenses - only on the basis of an increased knowledge and faithfulness to the Bible.
Each community or parish constitutes itself in assembly by electing the council of elders presided over by the pastor. Each community, in turn, delegates its own representatives to the general assembly of the communities called Synod made up of pastors and laymen in equal number. The Synod represents the highest legislative and doctrinal authority of the church; from among its members the Synod elects a few representatives that make up the directive council of the church called Tavola (Board), presided over by the Moderator.
It is needless to mention that this regime of ecclesiastical government in use in Protestantism has inspired widely the parliamentary system of the Anglo Saxon countries. In the Waldensian Valleys, the presence of this religious evangelical confession with its particular characteristics has been a fundamental element in the life of the people and has contributed considerably in bestowing upon them some typical characteristics.
The Poor of Lione
Waldensian history is related to one of the most lively and most fruitful periods of European history - the XII century. The Waldensian movement, in fact, emerged from the immense wave of religious restlessness which accompanied the communal civilization at its rise. Its founder was a strong religious personality, a merchant from Lyon (France), called Valdo or Valdes, who gave up his trade to live in poverty and in meditation the Christian faith in its primitive purity. Like Francis, the poor man of Assisi, he was to discover, under the moral and spiritual ruins of the medieval society, the original values of Christianity.
The Poor Men of Lyon were not satisfied, however, like the Franciscans, to relive the Evangelical pathway in material poverty. They tried to find in the meditation of Scriptures the basis for the renewal of Christianity. Characteristic of their movement was the vindication of the right to preach, which was up to that point an absolute prerogative of the clergy. The Christian faith, declared the Waldenses at that closing phase of the Middle Ages, is not adherence to dogmas or rites, but personal conviction and obedience to the Evangelical norms as they are expressed in the Scriptures.
Opposed by the hierarchy and excommunicated in 1183, they none-the-less spread with extraordinary rapidity in a clandestine way through western Europe, arousing the violent reaction of the religious and civil authorities, Papacy and Empire, equally threatened in their authoritarian power by this lay and popular protest.
Often confused with the Albigensian (or Catari) in the repression, they were over-run along with them in Southern France, their native land. Tortured without mercy by the courts of the Inquisition, they went to the stake or were scattered into other regions. The only group of certain size that was able to survive, due to favorable geographic and political situation, was the group of the Alps. At first they were mainly located on the French side, in the lands of the DauphinŽ. Later on they were to be found on the Italian side, in the valleys of the Po andChisone rivers.
These valleys, under the dominion of the Acaian nobility and of the Counts of Luserna, became in the late Middle Ages the land of refuge of a non-conformist and independent religious minority that succeeded miraculously to survive. Crusades and exterminations were not lacking during the XIV and XV centuries. Threats and promises were repeatedly sent to the lords of the area by bishops and missionaries, without obtaining, however, the re-absorption of the Waldensian protest into the Catholic religious society. On the contrary, it became a ferment of a new protest which was much more organized and compact - the Hussite reform of Bohemia, which carried out with undoubted success the plan of a non-Roman Christian community in the framework of the imperial lands.