July 17 — Peter Waldo

Today’s Bible reading

Read Deuteronomy 33

This is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, gave the Israelites before his death.

St. Alexius

More thoughts for meditation about Peter Waldo

Nobody knows the day Peter Waldo died. But we do know that his faith was warmed when he listened to a sermon about Alexius of Rome. So it seems appropriate to celebrate him on St. Alexius Day. Let’s start with a bit about what made Alexius a moving example of faith:

Alexius was the only son of a wealthy Christian Roman of the senatorial class. He fled his arranged marriage to follow his call to holiness. Disguised as a beggar, he lived near Edessa in Syria, accepting alms even from his own household slaves, who had been sent to look for him but did not recognize him, until a miraculous icon singled him out as a “Man of God.” Fleeing the fame that resulted, he returned to Rome, so changed that his parents did not recognize him, but as good Christians they took him in and sheltered him for seventeen years, which he spent in a dark cubbyhole beneath the stairs, praying and teaching catechism to children. After his death, his family found writings on his body which told them who he was and how he had lived his life of penance from the day of his wedding, for the love of God.

While Peter Waldo was listening to this story, he was moved to also become a man of God. Like others in his day, he embraced the value of poverty, giving away his wealth and property in 1170. Specific details of his life are largely unknown. Extant sources relate that he was a wealthy clothier and merchant from Lyons and a man of some learning.

The church of 12th Century Europe was powerful and impressive. The emerging Gothic architecture shows the devotion of the people and the wealth of the bishops. The developing scholastic theology shows the intellectual dominance and refinement of thinking among academic theologians. The Crusades against Islam in Jerusalem and heretics at home show the coercive strength of the church in cooperation with the state.

The church’s success, however, alienated many people. To the dissatisfied, the church seemed greatly corrupted by its power. To them, the church seemed to have forgotten Christ’s call to otherworldliness, poverty, and humility. In various, often quite divergent movements, a reaction of Christian simplicity was raised against the wealth and power of the church.

The established church managed to contain some of this unrest, particularly through the asceticism of the monastic movements. But even these movements tended over time to be corrupted by wealth and immorality. Some of the unrest moved outside the church and orthodox teaching. For instance, the Cathari, also known as the Cathars or Albigensians, adopted a spiritualistic religion that rejected the material world so radically that it left no place for the incarnation. This movement attracted many followers, particularly in the south of France, and it was viciously persecuted by church and state.

A similar critique against the church was initiated by Peter Waldo (sometimes Peter Valdez). He was inspired by a series of events: 1) as noted, a sermon on the life of St. Alexius, 2) his rejection of transubstantiation when it was considered a capital crime to do so, 3) the sudden and unexpected death of a friend during an evening meal. From this point onward he began living a radical Christian life, giving his property over to his wife, while the remainder of his belongings he distributed to the poor.

His followers were sometimes called the Poor Men of Lyons. But his critique of the church adopted neither the radical love of poverty in itself as St. Francis later adopted nor the radical spiritualizing of the Cathars. Instead, they turned to the simple vision of Christianity that they found in the Bible. Waldo saw to the translation of the Bible into the language of the people. He and his followers went about preaching a simple understanding of the word.

Waldo preached and taught publicly, based on his ideas of simplicity and poverty, notably that “No man can serve two masters, God and Mammon” accompanied by strong condemnations of Papal excesses and Catholic dogmas, including purgatory and transubstantiation, picturing the Church of Rome as the harlot from the book of Revelation. His followers spread this word  disguised as peddlers.

For a time, the movement spread widely into parts of Germany and Austria, as well as Northern Italy. Persecution by the church, however, was severe and eventually reduced the movement to a remnant in the valleys of Northern Italy. Efforts to eradicate them through the centuries failed. It was only in 1870 that the Waldensians received full civil rights in Italy. Pope Francis recently asked their forgiveness.

Waldo and his followers have sometimes been listed among the forerunners of the Franciscans and the Reformation. When the Reformation began in the sixteenth century, contact was established between the Waldensians and the Reformers. Ultimately the Waldensians accepted the spiritual connection between their movement and Protestantism. Unfortunately, this connection led to even greater persecution.

The Waldensians were witnesses to the presence of Christ’s word and Spirit in the church through the centuries. They expressed to aspects of Apostolic faith that were threatened with extinction in the dominant church. They remind us that in every era, Christ fulfills His promise: “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

Suggestions for action

It is always exciting to see a relatively normal group of people come to faith, against all odds, and then give witness to the powers that deprived them of faith to begin with!

Does Peter Waldo embolden you? What have you heard, lately, that, if you took it to heart, would cause some revolution in you and your environment?

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