More than being associated with the Protestant Reformation in all its varieties, Italy is traditionally linked to the Counter-Reformation epitomized by the Council of Trent (1545–1563), where Protestant ideas were “anathemized.” Since then, the spiritual, cultural, and ideological influence of Roman Catholicism in Italy has been essentially supreme. This does not mean, however, that the reforming waves that crossed Europe did not reach the Italian peninsula or did not make a significant—though not lasting—impact.
From Peter Waldo (c. 1140–1205) to Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98), there have been people who have paved the way for the appreciation of gospel truths in Italy. In Reformation times and after, Italian theologians have significantly contributed to the cause of the gospel worldwide. Think of Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562), peer to John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger, whose Loci Communes (Common Places) were standard works for generations of Protestant pastors. Think of Francis Turretin (1623–87), whose Institutes of Elenctic Theology is a crown of Reformed orthodoxy that served as the theology textbook at old Princeton Seminary.
As a result of the Counter-Reformation, for centuries Bibles in the Italian vernacular language were prevented from being read by laypeople. The irony and tragedy of Italy is that it was regarded as a highly religious land and people, with deeply rooted religious traditions, but with no access to the Bible and therefore total ignorance of the Word of God.
Since the Protestant Reformation was suffocated in the sixteenth century by a powerful Roman Catholic Church, the evangelical community in Italy has always been a tiny persecuted minority until the second half of the twentieth century. Having learned to survive, churches now are made up of solid believers who nonetheless tend to be inwardly focused. However, these difficult conditions haven’t prevented the gospel from spreading, especially in the southern regions of the country. Evangelicals represent roughly 1 percent of Italy’s sixty-one million people.
Protestant Witness in Rome
Rome is no different from the rest of the country. There are at least fifty evangelical churches in the city. Most of them are small congregations made up of faithful believers, and these churches typically have few resources and are in “survival mode.” We still struggle with the centuries-long prejudice of Protestants’ being considered a cult.
What makes our church, Breccia di Roma, distinct is that it is confessional (holding to a Reformed confession of faith), urban (aiming at influencing the cultural, political, media, and academic institutions of the city with the gospel), and missional (trying to live to the glory of God in all vocations and initiatives). Unlike cults, we cherish church history and claim to belong to the catholic (not Roman Catholic) church. Unlike cults, the gospel we believe is for all of life. Unlike cults, we encourage constructive and critical cultural engagement. Thankfully, there is a growing number of churches like that here in Rome.
Because of the presence of the Vatican, Rome’s city center has been until recently a “heresy free” zone. Non-Catholic initiatives were not welcomed if not altogether forbidden. The last property that evangelical churches bought in the central area dates back to 1920. After nearly one hundred years, we are sending the message that we love the gospel and we love the city.
In 2016, our church purchased a fantastic property in the heart of Rome. The space is next to historic sites (Colosseum), institutional buildings (Presidential Palace), financial institutions (Bank of Italy), and academic centers (i.e., two main Catholic universities are next to us, the Gregorian and the Angelicum, with thousands of students from among whom the future bishops and popes of the Roman Catholic Church will come). We want to be a gospel community right at the heart of Rome. Apart from hosting the activities of the church, the property also functions as a theological study center. With Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (a Reformed theological institute), we are providing outstanding theological training to many students: 130 students are enrolled in a five-year nonresidential course. We also function as a learning community of the Union School of Theology, thus offering solid theological training for students who are fluent in the English language. We have a small but well-resourced theological library providing books and facilities for our students.
In Rome we act as an outpost of evangelical theology next to the Jesuit and the Dominican universities, which are around the corner. The space has the potential to become a springboard for gospel work in the city and beyond. For example, the Reformanda Initiative was launched here in 2016. It aims at identifying, uniting, equipping, and resourcing Protestant leaders throughout the world to better understand Roman Catholic theology and practice in these confusing times and to educate the church on how to better communicate the gospel in such contexts. From Rome, our prayer is to have a local, national, and global impact for the gospel.
As my senior colleague at IFED Pietro Bolognesi rightly argues, we have three main challenges: identity, unity, and training. In a struggling, minority situation, Christian identity has been largely defined not by who we are but by who we are not (e.g., not religiously Roman Catholic, not theologically liberal, not culturally secular). The overall perception in Rome has been that evangelicals are a cult. There is a need, then, to better grasp our evangelical identity based on core gospel truths rather than on subcultural features.
Then, there’s unity. Secondary distinctives have produced much fragmentation. We need to do together what’s biblically possible, knowing that most of the challenges ahead of us (e.g., public witness, church planting, quality training) cannot be faced on a local level alone.
Last, there’s training. In the struggling and small evangelical churches in Rome, ministerial formation hasn’t been viewed as a priority. Most leaders are self-taught and self-trained. Cultural engagement is often shallow. The situation won’t improve if leaders don’t emerge who are better equipped for ministry and if we don’t have Christians better prepared for how to be faithful and missional in their vocations. By God’s grace, we aim to meet these challenges.