TURIN, Italy — Pope Francis asked forgiveness Monday for the Catholic Church's persecution of members of a small evangelical church in Italy whose leader was excommunicated and followers branded as heretics during the Middle Ages.
Francis made the appeal during the first-ever visit by a pope to a Waldensian house of worship, starting the second day of his two-day visit to Turin with a strong ecumenical message of Christian inclusiveness and fraternity.
The Waldensian church was founded in the 12th century by a wealthy merchant from Lyon, France, Pierre Valdo, who gave up his belongings to preach a Gospel of simplicity and poverty that condemned papal excesses. He was excommunicated and his followers persecuted as heretics by Rome.
The Waldensians today are united with the Methodist Church of Italy and claim 45,000 followers, mostly in Italy, Argentina and Uruguay.
During a speech to a few hundred people in the Waldensian temple of Turin, Francis decried how Christians over history committed atrocious acts of violence in the name of their faith.
"On the part of the Catholic Church, I ask your forgiveness, I ask it for the non-Christian and even inhuman attitudes and behavior that we have showed you," Francis said somberly from the altar. "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us!"
His speech, greeted with warm applause, was reminiscent albeit on a much smaller scale of the appeals for forgiveness made by St. John Paul II during the 2000 Jubilee. In several events that year, John Paul asked pardons for the Crusades and Catholic wrongs committed against Jews and others.
Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, has continued his strong friendships with leaders of Protestant and evangelical churches that he developed as the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Later Monday, Francis had lunch with and celebrated Mass for around 30 members of his extended family, who hail from Italy's Piedmont region. The Vatican said the reunion involved six cousins and their families.
Winfield reported from Rome.
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