Vincenzo Conforte felt satisfied with his life as it was, and he thought the doctrines the two young missionaries had explained to him when they first met him were “crazy.” So he harassed them when they came to his home: he smoked throughout their visit because he knew they were opposed to smoking, and he challenged them with difficult questions, asking them, for instance, how they could preach a gospel of peace when their country had been so frequently involved in war.
Vincenzo Conforte would not have imagined that in a year he would be presiding over the members of their church in his area. In little more than a decade, he would be directing young people like those two missionaries, presiding over one of the Church’s missions in Italy.
As a boy, Vincenzo had suffered because of the effects of World War II on his country and his family’s poverty. Experiences during those years led him to become an agnostic.
But he recalls that later, after he had a family, “I felt a great desire to have a relationship with God. I had hope in my heart that one day God would communicate with me.” In fact, he had turned to heaven for help during a series of family health problems not long before he met the missionaries. “It was the first time I prayed to God. I said, ‘If you exist, please save my daughter.’” His daughter, who had been in a coma, was spared, and Vincenzo believes it was a result of his prayer.
His wife, Carolina, was active in the church Vincenzo had abandoned so long ago. But she was troubled at times by questions about where we came from before this mortal life, why we’re here, and where we’re going. Her religious teachers had no answers for her. “When we die, we’ll know,” they said. Still, Carolina Conforte felt no need to look further for religious truth. She could not know that her husband’s chance encounter with the LDS missionaries would soon challenge her complacency.
The missionaries had come to know many of the children in the Confortes’ neighborhood in Foggia, Italy, and they met Vincenzo when he was visiting the park with his young son, Maurizio. But it took four months for the missionaries finally to arrange a meeting with the family.
After that first visit in the Conforte home, the missionaries almost decided not to return. But they prayed and felt they should try again. The second time they found Vincenzo much less argumentative. They did not know that he had found their first discussion interesting and had asked his wife to participate in the next one.
For her, it was a surprisingly joyous experience. “Immediately, I accepted all the doctrine. I even accepted immediately that Joseph Smith was a prophet.” But Carolina was troubled because these were missionaries from another church; she feared the social and family consequences of changing churches in Italy. Nevertheless, when the missionaries challenged her to be baptized, she knew in her heart that she needed to pray honestly about the matter, as they had urged.
The next morning as she handled her daily chores, she pondered what the missionaries had taught; she carried on an internal monologue, half to herself and half to her Heavenly Father, to justify staying with her church. While she believed that Joseph Smith was a prophet, she wondered if the church he had established had remained true to the principles revealed through him. The missionaries had explained that after the Savior’s death, his Church had dwindled in apostasy; could the same thing have happened again to the restored Church after Joseph Smith’s death? If so, it would be pointless for her to change churches. Carolina reasoned that as long as she tried to live the Savior’s teachings, it didn’t matter which church she attended. But suddenly her internal monologue was interrupted by a strong, clear answer in her mind: “Hypocrite!”
She stopped in the middle of the room, stunned in her heart. After all, she had asked the Lord many times to show her his will. Out loud, she answered, “You’re right,” and went to kneel and pray in earnest.
When she asked whether she should be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she received a warm, peaceful assurance she had never felt before. Inexperienced with such feelings, Carolina wondered if she might somehow be deceiving herself because of her emotional state. Today, familiar with the experience of studying out a problem before approaching the Lord in prayer for help, she now recognizes similar spiritual promptings. But then, unfamiliar with the way the Lord has suggested that his followers seek help from him (see D&C 9:7–9), she turned to something close at hand for further assurance.
She regarded the Book of Mormon as “an interesting story.” But the missionaries had testified that it contained the word of God. So she asked the Lord to tell her through that book whether it was true that she should be baptized.
Closing her eyes and opening the book, she put her finger down on Alma 7:14: “Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God.” Still uncertain, and still fearful of the consequences of baptism, she prayed once more and again asked the Lord to answer her through the book. Her experience was repeated two more times, with the same result. There could be no doubt about what the Lord was instructing her to do.
For his part, Vincenzo felt that what the missionaries taught made sense. He had cooperated in the discussions and in reading the Book of Mormon. But he, too, was still uncertain about baptism. He was concerned that the family and social consequences might be difficult to face. (Time would prove him right.)
While his wife had been receiving her answer to prayer during that morning of struggle, Vincenzo had also experienced the touch of the Spirit. Like his wife, he was not used to asking the Lord for spiritual confirmation of decisions. But the decision about baptism had been much on his mind. He was driving to work that morning when suddenly he felt a strong spiritual presence in the car with him. Startled and a bit frightened, he hastily pulled off the road to get out of the car and assure himself that nothing was amiss. The feeling went away for the moment. Getting back into the car, he drove very intently and sang songs loudly to be sure he was awake, not dreaming—and not going crazy. But soon he felt the same powerful, peaceful presence, and found himself quietly crying and praying. He realized then that he must be baptized.
This decision filled him with joy, and he shared the news with some colleagues at work that morning. One of them, who had some knowledge of the LDS Church, replied, “Oh, then you will begin paying tithing?”
What was tithing?
When his friend explained, Vincenzo was furious. The whole thing had been a trick to get him to give money! But he would show the missionaries—he would never join, and he would throw them out of his home when they came that evening.
After lunch at home, however, he calmed down, and instead of taking his usual brief rest, he opened the Book of Mormon to read. Quickly he came to 1 Nephi 2:4, which describes how Lehi, obedient to the Lord’s commandment, “left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, … and departed into the wilderness,” [1 Ne. 2:4] with the promised land as his future objective. Vincenzo realized that it was not so big a sacrifice he would be asked to make, and that the promised blessings were more than ample. So when the missionaries arrived that evening, he politely chided them for not telling him sooner about everything that would be expected of him.
Though their children were young, the Confortes gave them the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they would join the Church. The children, too, were taught, and made their decisions. The Conforte family was baptized on Christmas Day, 1975.
For Carolina, baptism literally meant the end of a dream. Since childhood, she had experienced a recurring dream in which she found herself walking through a peaceful world where people, all dressed in white, and animals, even some that were ordinarily ferocious, roamed freely. In her dream, she could feel that the people were full of happiness and joy, and she wished to share in their feelings. After her baptism, the dream never came again. She believes this is because she had found the key to that world of peace and beauty.
But for Brother Conforte, what followed baptism was like a nightmare. “It seemed all the forces of evil were unleashed against us,” he says. Opposition from his family was bitter. His parents accused him of trying to destroy their family by breaking with tradition. His mother told him he must choose between the Church and her: “If you choose that church, you’ll never see my face again.” Vincenzo had received enough assurances at this point to know that he was on the right path, and he determined to stay on it. His mother kept her promise and avoided seeing him, as best she could, until her death. But his father, before passing away, confided that it was obvious the decision to join the LDS Church had been the correct one for Vincenzo, because it had brought so much good into his life.
Sister Conforte’s parents joined the Church a year after Carolina and Vincenzo did. Carolina’s father had also observed the changes for the better that had come into Vincenzo’s life, so he asked to be taught the gospel. He told Vincenzo: “If this church changed you, then this church is true!”
The Church had indeed altered Vincenzo Conforte’s life, more than anyone could see from the outside. Vincenzo’s views were conservative. He had strong negative feelings about the long-haired, improperly attired students he saw in his city. He has no doubt now that the Lord shielded his eyes so that he would not notice some of them attending the LDS branch before he was baptized. The first time he attended the branch after baptism, he looked around at some of those young people and said within himself, “What have we done?” Then he looked at them again, and determined to help them.
Three months after baptism, he was called as a counselor to the branch president. He learned to love the people of the branch, and he learned to love service. It was a joy to see some of those long-haired young people change their lives as they, too, grew in the gospel.
But when he received a call to be branch president himself, about a year after baptism, he faced another critical test. He believed in the Church, in the manifestations he had received, and in the principles of the gospel. But Brother Conforte had lingering doubts about whether Joseph Smith was a prophet. He knew those doubts had to be resolved before he could honestly accept the calling as branch president. He went home to pray about it.
Kneeling in his room, he promised the Lord, “I’m not getting up from here until you tell me if Joseph Smith was a prophet.” It was an intense experience. “I don’t know how long I was on my knees. My wife tells me it may have been about five hours.” But when he left the room, he had received the assurance he had sought.
His testimony has been strengthened through later service as a counselor to the mission president, as a district president, and then as president of the Italy Catania Mission from 1986 to 1989 and the Italy Padova Mission from 1990 to 1992. Following their missionary service, President and Sister Conforte returned home to Foggia. He is now serving as regional representative for the Milan Italy Region, and she is Relief Society president in the Foggia Branch.
In the early years of their life together, while the Confortes were trying to learn how God wanted them to live, they had no inkling of the great changes that their desire could bring into their lives. But Brother Conforte is grateful that a loving Heavenly Father was molding them even then. “He had already prepared the way for us to be members of his church.”