03241_000_010The “good day” of the gospel has dawned for Italians, and thousands are discovering the happiness and peace it brings.
As a young college student, Giuseppe Pasta found his belief in God constantly challenged by atheistic friends. He began intensive study of the Bible to strengthen his beliefs, and his study did indeed bring Giuseppe closer to God. But it also convinced him that the church of his forefathers was somehow incomplete. In it, he had learned basic moral principles, but he felt there must be more to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Where was this additional truth?
When his prayers for further enlightenment seemed to go unanswered, he concluded that perhaps he was not righteous enough. He sought to humble himself in service to patients at a charity hospital, where “I found what the pure love of Christ is.”
Then one day he met two LDS missionaries “street-boarding” (explaining the gospel with portable displays) outside the hospital. That meeting led, after a long period of study, to his conversion; but he did not at first tell his family about his baptism.
When they learned of it, they were devastated. Friends presented him a petition, with hundreds of signatures, begging him to come back to the “true church.” An interview was arranged for him with the cardinal of Turin, in the hope that the cleric could persuade him to change his mind. They became friends. Convinced at length that young Giuseppe was sincere in his beliefs, the cardinal counseled him to be true to them.
Giuseppe Pasta has been a member of the Church for twenty years now, long enough to qualify him as an LDS pioneer in Italy. He was an executive with Fiat for seventeen years before he was hired to open the Church’s first regional office in Italy. As a temple sealer, he has had the privilege of uniting many of his countrymen for eternity in the Swiss Temple. Currently president of the Italy Rome Mission, he directs some 150 missionaries in bringing gospel truths to other Italians.
Like President Pasta, many Italian Latter-day Saints reordered their lives to join the Church after discovering gospel truths they had not known existed. Like him, many of them are pioneers in their families and in their country.
On the island of Sardinia, Antonio Mura turned the missionaries away twice. The third time the missionaries came, they told the person who answered the door that there was a man in the house who needed to hear the message they brought. They knew this, they said, because the Spirit of the Lord had guided them to his door three times. Antonio Mura finally listened to the gospel—and found “it was like a window opening on a beautiful landscape I hadn’t suspected was there.” He “devoured” the Book of Mormon, he recalls. Since his baptism in 1973, he has served in a number of leadership positions; he is currently a district president.
Far to the south, in Sicily, Rosario Virgillito and his wife-to-be both faced opposition from their families when they joined the Church in 1984. Because a big church wedding is a strong tradition in Sicily, their families were puzzled and hurt that Rosario and his sweetheart wanted to be married instead in something called a temple, in faraway Switzerland. But the couple did what they knew was right. Rosario serves now as elders quorum president in the Catania Branch of the Italy Catania Mission. As a pioneer in his family, he knows his example will be crucial. “I can’t make a mistake, because my family watches me closely.”
Italy harbors a strong dominant church tradition (though this has weakened in recent years, particularly in the industrialized north). For many Italians there is no other church but the one in which their generations of tradition are centered.
It was this strong church tradition that confronted Elder Lorenzo Snow of the Council of the Twelve as a missionary nearly 140 years ago. His successes came not among Italy’s Catholics, but among the Waldenses, a Protestant group in the north.
On 19 October 1850, he and three missionary companions climbed to the top of a mountain near Torre Pellice, at the base of the Italian Alps. They christened it Mount Brigham, and from an outcropping they called the Rock of Prophecy, Elder Snow dedicated the land for the preaching of the gospel. On October 27, they recorded their first baptism.
Though Elder Snow was called to labor in other fields, the work continued in Italy and spread to Switzerland. In 1854, when the mission became the Swiss and Italian Mission, Italy had three branches with sixty-four members. Fifty converts had already immigrated to the United States.
Eventually, though, the missionaries were called away, and the organized LDS Church dwindled.
After World War II, United States military personnel stationed in Italy brought the Church back. In the early 1960s, they and their families were organized into branches and groups under the Swiss Mission. There were, in addition, a few Italian members like Vincenzo di Francesca (his story is movingly told in the Church film How Rare a Possession) who had somehow found the gospel. The military personnel had also brought in some local converts. In mid-1964, the Swiss Mission recorded that there were 229 Latter-day Saints in Italy. Then, on 27 February 1965, with the Book of Mormon newly available in Italian, the Swiss Mission organized an Italian Zone. Missionaries were sent to labor in Turin, Milan, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, and Pordenone.
On 10 November 1966, at approximately the same spot where Elder Snow had dedicated Italy for missionary work 116 years earlier, Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve rededicated the land for the preaching of the gospel. In the dedicatory prayer, he felt moved to predict, under the authority of the holy priesthood and under inspiration, that thousands of Italians would be brought into the Church.
That prophetic utterance has been fulfilled. By spring 1989, Church membership in Italy was well over thirteen thousand, in three missions—Italy Milan, Italy Rome, Italy Catania—and two stakes—Milan Italy and Venice Italy. Nearly a third of this membership is concentrated in the two stakes.
Some of the strength of the Church in northern Italy is seen at a Sunday morning stake conference in Milan. Members fill a large rented theater, and il sindaco—the mayor—makes a brief visit to speak favorably of Latter-day Saints and the strong, eternal values by which they live. Such a thing simply could not have happened in Italy a few years ago.
Stake president Raimondo Castellani typifies many of the strengths of the Church in modern Italy. He is a humble, deeply spiritual man, but also a man who commands respect—a dynamic, forward-looking general manager of a firm that imports and sells high-tech machinery. A member since 1983, he recalls that he and his wife were hesitant at first to talk about the Church after their baptism, even to his family members, because people around them seemed so steeped in tradition. Now the Castellanis will talk about the gospel to anyone who will listen. On his lapel the president wears a gold LDS pin that invites questions.
Similarly, Claudio E. Luttmann, president of the Venice stake, is a humble man. Like President Castellani, he can bow his head unaffectedly in a restaurant to ask a quiet blessing on his lunch. In Italy, his devotion draws respect from those who notice. A nationally known broadcast executive, he, too, is a dynamic man who inspires confidence.
President Luttmann lives in Trieste, at the far eastern edge of the Venice stake, which stretches west beyond Verona and south beyond Bologna. A significant portion of Italy’s land area and perhaps a quarter of its people are within his stake. It is 163 kilometers (98 miles) by freeway from his home to the stake center in Mestre, near Venice.
Many other stake and ward leaders travel similar distances in carrying out their Church obligations. Renato Marini, for example, works for the Church in Milan and presides over the district headquartered in Turin, more than 120 kilometers west. He lives in Voghera, far off the route between the two cities. “My life is a triangle,” he says.
Some members and leaders turn to Italy’s efficient, modern trains to travel to meetings and activities, spending many hours en route. Others may go by car, but gasoline is very expensive; it can cost well over fifty-five thousand lire (more than forty U. S. dollars) to fill the tank of a medium-sized Fiat. How do they pay the cost? “Faith does, many times, what money and the pocketbook cannot,” President Luttmann answers, smiling.
President Umberto Pagnani of the Rome District, Italy Rome Mission, says distance is one of the factors that makes it hard to keep young people active in the Church when they lack family support. Even in the metropolitan area of Rome, with several branches, youth may have to travel two to three hours on city buses to attend meetings or activities.
In other areas, the relative scarcity of Latter-day Saints makes parental and leader support critical for youth. In Pisa, fifteen-year-old Lorenzo Mariani, who has grown up in the Church, is one-third of the active youth in his branch. Church activities for his age group are few (but still more frequent than those for his older sister Silvia, in her twenties). Sixteen-year-old llaria Grande and her brother Luciano, now nearly out of his teens, are the other two youth in the Pisa Branch. Both Luciano and Ilaria date nonmembers. Does it worry their parents that the two young people might find non-LDS spouses? Yes, says their father, Nicola Grande. But Brother Grande, long active in missionary work, takes a practical approach; he is trying to help his children convert the people they are dating.
President Luttmann says many Italians are attracted to the Church by the good example and strong faith of Latter-day Saints. In a family oriented culture, they also appreciate the Church’s strong family emphasis. During a Verona Ward missionary presentation, for example, Venice stake high councilor Luigi Farinazzo testifies to nonmember visitors of how the gospel can bless their lives. The other members of his family are active in missionary work as well; his wife regularly gives the Book of Mormon as a birthday gift to non-LDS friends, and his young children amaze schoolteachers with the strength of their religious convictions.
The Church grows steadily in Italy. But many longtime members believe a second generation of Latter-day Saints will be able to spread the gospel more freely as others observe the effect that living it from childhood has had on members’ lives.
Youth like sixteen-year-old Antonio Sammaciccia of Turin and his fourteen-year-old brother Daniele may be the kind of people these first-generation members have in mind. If the Sammaciccia brothers’ standards sometimes clash with those of their friends, the brothers feel no need to compromise. In the branch, they enjoy music and Primary callings that might be held by adults where membership is larger. The group of youth in the Torino District is small, but leaders have a hard time keeping ahead of the young people in planning because the youth are so eager.
In Palermo, Sicily, Anastasia Li Vigni is district and branch Young Women president. She was converted in New York City while her husband was pursuing his opera career there. “I love to serve,” she says. “I live for this.” And though young women face many obstacles in living the gospel where they belong to such a minority, she reflects on the strength it brings into their lives and comments, “They are beautiful—very strong.”
It is a Sunday morning in Rome, and a handful of children from the Nomentano Branch Primary stand before the congregation in sacrament meeting to sing a rousing version of “Called to Serve.” Listening to them, one has no doubt that they will not only change the future of the Church in their country, they will change the future of Italy itself.
How They Came into the Church
Many Italian members have had to exhibit great faith to break with strong traditions in their country and come into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For some, special spiritual experiences helped strengthen their resolve and their testimonies. Here, in brief, are a few of their stories.
In a dream, Tommaso Castro saw his mother, who had been dead for some years, and she made known to him that she was involved in the study of things important to eternity.
How could that be? he wondered. The religion he knew did not allow for such a possibility.
Then one of his young women friends invited him to help embarrass some American missionaries she had invited to her home. Tommaso went, but he didn’t feel good about participating in the taunting.
When the missionaries started talking about something called the plan of salvation, which allows our dead loved ones to continue progressing after this life, they immediately had Tommaso’s full attention. He started seeing the missionaries on his own and was soon baptized.
Brother Castro, a stake high councilor, lives in Pavia, south of Milan.
Milena Montrasio wanted God to tell her that another baptism was not necessary, that there was no reason to face the social and family consequences of changing churches. But that was not the answer she received.
Doctrines taught by the LDS missionaries had answered questions that had always troubled her—questions like “Why did God demand such a painful sacrifice of his own son?” As for the Book of Mormon, “I never doubted it was the word of God,” she recalls. Her husband had not understood why she cried when she read it. “Because I am so happy,” she had explained.
Though Milena’s husband had been present for the missionary discussions, he showed no interest in religion. When Milena told him she planned to be baptized, he angrily said she would be disgracing the family by leaving the dominant church in their society. He threatened to leave her if she did it.
She had always stood by him whenever he needed her, and now he could stand by her, she replied. She would not be baptized if he opposed it, she said, but “I will live as if I were baptized, because the testimony I have received is too strong to deny.”
Her firmness moved him to listen again to what the missionaries had to teach. The Montrasios were baptized together in 1985. He is bishop of the Milan stake’s Monza Ward, and she serves in several positions, including ward Young Women president.
Massimo and Daniela Lo Monaco
Massimo Lo Monaco confided to his young wife that he had doubts about the existence of God. If there was a God, why didn’t he make himself known to man?
But a recent experience, an answer to prayer, had left Daniela Lo Monaco certain of the existence of God. She had been responsible for a serious error at her place of employment and feared the consequences. She had prayed to God for help, and when she reported the problem to her supervisor, the situation had been resolved surprisingly easily. So she prayed again in gratitude, and asked her Heavenly Father, “What would you have me do?”
Not long afterward, two young missionaries knocked on their door. As the missionaries taught them, the Lo Monacos discovered that the gospel answered both his question and hers, and they were soon baptized. He is first counselor in the presidency of the Pisa Branch, and she is the Primary president.
Mario Moro could not understand why he was drawn to buy that unusual book in a bookstore in 1973. But it fascinated him. He carried it everywhere to read.
The two LDS missionaries who came to his office one day nudged each other when they saw the Book of Mormon on his desk. What they taught him about the book was not new; he had already read it through once and had started over. But even though he felt good about everything they taught him, he struggled for almost a month with their baptismal challenge.
Then one day he closed his office door and knelt in prayer to ask what to do. The answer was strong. He went immediately to the missionaries—he doesn’t remember being aware of anything around him until he arrived—and they baptized him in the font they had kept filled for days, awaiting his decision. As soon as he was dry, Brother Moro was off to do member-missionary work with the elders that afternoon.
He is now second counselor in the presidency of the Sardinia District, Italy Rome Mission, and mission leader in the Sassari Branch.
Roberto and Giovanna Marino
Giovanna Marino struggled with some of the things the missionaries taught: could there be men so good in our times, she wondered, as to be true prophets? But she liked the spirit the missionaries brought to her home. And for her, the first time she read the Book of Mormon, enlightenment came almost as healing had come to the blinded Paul, who taught in her part of Italy nearly two thousand years ago. It was as though scales fell from her spiritual eyes, she recalls.
Her husband, Roberto, accepted everything the missionaries taught. The doctrine of eternal marriage seemed especially important to him. Prayer helped him overcome his difficult smoking and coffee consumption habits, and the Marinos were baptized in January of 1975.
It was a year later, as they prepared to go to the Swiss Temple, that Sister Marino remembered the prayer she had offered not long before they met the missionaries. She had prayed specifically to know who God was, if Jesus Christ was his Son, why Jesus had to die, and why we exist. And she gave thanks for the direct answer to that prayer.
The Marinos live in Siracusa, Sicily. He is currently a counselor to the president of the Italy Catania Mission, and she handles Church public communications efforts in Italy.
Soft-spoken Rosario Saccone was elated when, in 1981, the missionaries first talked to him about the plan of salvation. He thought, “Finally! Someone who thinks like me.” Excitedly, he gathered his friends at the local pizzeria and had the missionaries explain the plan to them. (One of those friends was later baptized.)
Rosario’s conversion did not go smoothly, however. At one point, he was going to call off the baptism. But the reassuring words that came from one of the missionaries struck Rosario so deeply that he knew they could only come from the heart of one inspired by God.
The situation nearly got out of hand when his large family learned of his impending baptism. The crying, pleading, and arguing that emanated from his family’s apartment drew the nine other families in their building into the discussion. At length, Rosario succeeded in calming the situation and convincing his mother that what he was about to do would not bring the family disgrace. Instead, it would make him better.
In time, his family came to know that he was right.
Rosario, who lives in Palermo, Sicily, has since served in the Italy Rome Mission and is now employed in microfilming records for the Church’s Family History Department.
Milestones in Italy
1850—Elder Lorenzo Snow of the Council of the Twelve dedicates Italy for the preaching of the gospel. Missionaries work among the Waldenses, a Protestant group in northern Italy. Several branches are organized, and members emigrate to Utah.
1964—The Swiss Mission reports approximately 229 Latter-day Saints in Italy, mostly U. S. service personnel.
1965—The Swiss Mission organizes an Italian Zone.
1966—Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve rededicates Italy for the preaching of the gospel. The Italian Mission is organized.
1971—The Italian Mission is split into the Italy North (later Italy Milan) and Italy South (later Italy Rome) missions.
1975—The Italy Padova Mission is organized.
1977—The Italy Catania Mission is organized.
1981—The Milan Italy Stake is organized.
1982—The Italy Padova Mission territory and membership is absorbed back into the Italy Milan and Italy Rome missions.
1985—The Venice Italy Stake is organized.
1988—The year-end Church membership is approximately 13,500.