Was Francis of Assisi secretly a Waldensian? Catholic writers vigorously reject the idea that a “heretic” such as Peter Waldo could have had any direct influence on the saint from Assisi. However, a cross-fertilization of ideas, with Peter Waldo directly or indirectly influencing Francis of Assisi is definitely possible.

Considered a major forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, Peter Waldo lived at the same time as Francis, in the twelfth century. He was a French merchant who was converted in 1170 and promptly gave up his substantial wealth. He formed a band known as the Poor People of Lyons. They went about preaching, translating the Bible into the language of the common people, and ministering to the poor, though they were committed to poverty themselves.

Confronted with a Christianity that was primarily theoretical, and with a priesthood saddled with corruption and inertia, Waldo insisted that the teaching of the gospel be put into practice. His Rule of Faith was therefore a call to action, summoning Christians to apply God’s commands in their everyday lives.

The Waldensian group was one of several springing up about that time as an intuitive answer to the specific needs for reform in the church. The Cistercians and the Albigensians in France pre-dated both the Franciscans in Italy and the Dominicans in Spain. They were spawned several years after Waldo and his Poor People of Lyons began to impact French society as the “Jesus People” of the twelfth century.

There is no recorded meeting between Francis and Peter Waldo, but the writings of a contemporary, Thomas of Celano, the biographer of Francis, lead us to some speculations. First, he says the mother of Francis was French. Second, she was sympathetic to the Waldensian ...

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