The Gospel in Italy. An Interview on The Gospel Coalition website

November 25th, 2015

by Ivan Mesa

Home of the pizza, battery, piano, espesso machine, barometer, typewriter, violin, and MP3, Italy is replete with interesting cultural history.

This peninsular country, nestled in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, became a nation-state in 1861 (with the establishment of a monarchy) until the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini during WWII. Since 1946 Italy has been a democratic republic and today boasts the fourth-largest national economy in Europe.

Almost twice the size of Georgia and slightly larger than Arizona, Italy has a population of 61 million—just a little less than France and the United Kingdom. Two sovereign nations exist within the Italy itself, including the Vatican. It should come as no surprise, then, that upwards 80 percent of its population identifies as Roman Catholic with a meager 1 percent identifying as evangelical.

Continuing our series highlighting how the gospel is at work in various countries, I reached out to Leonardo de Chirico, pastor of Breccia di Roma church in Rome and lecturer of historical theology at the Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (IFED). A keen observer of the Roman Catholic Church, Chirico discusses the state of the church in Italy today, what it’s like to be an evangelical in Rome, recent Vatican intrigue, and more.

In a hundred words or less, how would you describe the state of church in Italy?

As the Protestant Reformation was suffocated in the 16th 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 20th century. Having learned to survive, churches are made of solid believers who nonetheless tend to be inward-focused and suspicious of others. However, these difficult conditions didn’t prevent the gospel from spreading, especially in the southern regions of the country. Evangelicals represent roughly 1 percent of Italy’s 61 million people. So the work ahead of us is massive.

What most encourages you about the evangelical church in your country?

The faithful evangelical witness of past generations in difficult circumstances is inspiring. The gradual growth of cooperative efforts—for instance, in advocating for religious freedom or mercy ministries—is also encouraging. There are more solid books being translated into Italian (e.g., authors like Don Carson, Tim Keller, John Piper, John MacArthur, Mark Dever), and conferences and training initiatives are available for the Italian public. Recently the Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, a 900-page volume with more than 600 entries, was edited by Italian theologians and had to be reprinted—something unthinkable even a few years ago. There are 120 students following a non-residential five-year course in Reformed theology at the Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (IFED); this is also encouraging.

In the past, Italian theologians have significantly contributed to the cause of the gospel worldwide: I 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. I think of Francis Turretin (1623–1687), whose Institutes of Elenctic Theology is a crown of Reformed orthodoxy that served as the theology textbook at old Princeton Seminary. So while there’s still much to be translated, I’m convinced of the need for Italians themselves to write and develop contextually appropriate resources.

There’s also a growing desire to see a shift from the survival mentality of the past to a missional mindset for the glory of God and the good of the nation. Without negating our struggles and problems, there is a sense of a coming momentum for the gospel. Efforts to help the Italian church from abroad have largely tended to either bypass national Italian church leadership or support autonomous individuals. I think we are becoming more credible partners to work with in promoting the gospel in our country.

What are the biggest challenges facing the evangelical church in Italy?

As my senior colleague at IFED Pietro Bolognesi rightly argues, we have three main challenges: (1) identity, (2) unity, and (3) 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 has been that evangelicals are a cult. There is a need, then, to better grasp our evangelical identity based on core gospel essentials rather than on subcultural features.

Then there’s unity. Secondary distinctives have produced too 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.

Lastly there’s training. In struggling and small churches, formation haven’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.

A few years ago TGC published two pieces by Italian ministers. While one bemoaned the scarcity of spiritual leaders, the other lamented the shortage of Italian exegetes. In one sense, they were calling for the same thing: faithful, qualified, and able ministers of the Word of God. Would you agree with their take? Would you add anything?

They certainly describe a real need. God’s church exists where God’s Word is faithfully preached. We need preachers who aren’t only exegetes but also men of the Word to raise the profile of Christian ministry in the country. We also need churches prepared to move beyond extreme independence and develop the ability to operate in networks. We also need to nurture a vision for gospel impact on the whole country, not just maintenance of our own little tribes. Our dream should be to see God grant a time of biblical reformation that boldly confronts the idolatry of the nation.

For many years you’ve maintained a blog titled the Vatican Files (also appearing on Reformation21) where you write on the Vatican and Roman Catholic issues from an evangelical perspective. How did this begin? And what has the response been over the years?

As a theologian living in Rome I thought one way I could serve and contribute to the efforts of the global church would be to provide ongoing reports and assessments of Roman Catholicism. The allure and appeal of unity with Rome is as enticing as ever. Yet the need is to understand Roman Catholicism as a system governed by spurious principles such as optimistic anthropology, synergistic salvation, abnormal ecclesiology, and ambiguous church-state identity which lies at the heart of the church. The Vatican Files are tools designed to help grasp the theological system binding the whole of Roman Catholicism—and it attempts to go beyond simplistic and superficial understandings of it. I’ve received encouraging feedback from around the world saying the Vatican Files are useful. Today, the contribution that Italian theology can make to the global evangelical family perhaps lies in helping it to frame a biblically robust assessment of Roman Catholicism. More than ever this is at the top of the list of the global evangelical agenda.

Various reports indicate that a conservative dissent has been brewing in the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy as Pope Francis has sought, contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine, to grant divorced and remarried Catholics entrance both to the Church and to communion. As an evangelical in Rome, what’s your take?

Pope Francis is working hard to change the overall narrative of the Roman Catholic faith, wanting it to be marked by mercy and inclusivity instead of tradition and rules. He’s pitting the “letter” against the “spirit” of Roman Catholicism, pushing the latter over the former. This explains the concerns of certain traditional quarters about ambiguities in his language, also present in the final document of the recent Synod on the family.

Pope Francis wants to overcome the letter of canon law with a merciful spirit that welcomes all without challeging anyone. This is why he’s so loved by secular people. Everyone feels affirmed and no one feels questioned by what he says. But the biblical good news is that Jesus has come to pay for our sins and calls all persons to repent and believe. If you miss one bit of the gospel, you miss it all. The Pope uses language that resembles the gospel, but the meaning of what he says is far from it.

How can we pray for the evangelical church in Italy?

Please pray for:

  • a growing appreciation for gospel centrality in all we are and do;
  • a stronger sense of being part of the historical and global church of Jesus Christ;
  • a deeper sense of unity based on gospel truth;
  • a new enthusiasm in church planting and evangelism, especially in urban centers;
  • a support of training initiatives that are biblically sound and culturally relevant;
  • a peer-to-peer gospel partnership between the Italian church and the global church wanting to help us; and
  • a renewed gospel-centered engagement of society that addresses the bankruptcy of both religious and secular illusions in the hope God will move powerfully in the country.


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    115. Rome, the Pope and Gospel Work in Italy. 10 Questions With Leonardo De Chirico

    November 18th, 2015

    This interview was published in Credo Magazine, volume 5, Issue 4, November 2015, pp. 8-11.

    Leonardo De Chirico is the pastor of Breccia di Roma, a church that he helped plant in Rome in 2009. Previously, Leonardo planted and pastored an evangelical church in Ferrara, Italy, from 1997 to 2009. He earned degrees in History (University of Bologna), Theology (ETCW, Bridgend, Wales) and Bioethics (University of Padova). His PhD is from King’s College (London); it was published as Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. In 2015, he published A Christian Pocket Guide to Papacy (Christian Focus). He is a lecturer of Historical Theology at Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione in Padova, Italy. Additionally, Leonardo is the Director of the Reformanda Initiative, which aims to equip evangelical leaders to better understand and engage with Roman Catholicism, and the leader of the Rome Scholars Network (RSN):

    1. Did you grow up in the Catholic Church? If so, what drew you to become an evangelical Christian?

    My family was an ordinary Italian family, nominally Christian and devout to Saint Antony, but with little grasp of basic gospel truths. One day we were visited by a Swiss couple from the local evangelical church that was going door to door. They asked if we were Christians. The answer was “yes, of course.” They further asked if we had ever read the Bible. The answer was “no.” Catholics were not supposed to read the Bible.

    They then replied, “How can you be Christian if you don’t read what Christ has done for you?” It was as if a light was switched on in the darkness. It was the beginning of a journey that led my father to become a believer, then the rest of the family followed at different stages of life.

    2. What is the main doctrinal divide, in your estimation, between Roman Catholics and Protestants?

    In Roman Catholicism the tendency is to idolize the church. The distinction between Creator and creature is blurred by way of conferring to the church what ultimately belongs to the triune God alone. The church is elevated to a position that makes it an idol, stemming out of a non-tragic view of sin, the conviction that in significant ways the church continues the incarnation of Jesus Christ resulting in an abnormally conflated ecclesiology. The great bullet points of the Protestant Reformation, i.e. Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, are all biblical remedies against the idolatrous tendency of a self-referential church, which sadly have been rejected so far.

    3. In your ongoing interaction with Roman Catholics in Italy, what approach have you taken and found to be effective when witnessing to them?

    Exposing them to Scripture as much as possible and not assuming they already grasp the basics of the gospel. They may know some Christian vocabulary, but it is generally marred, distorted by traditions and deviant cultural baggage. Most Catholics in Italy are of the “pick-and-choose” variety and so they blend unbiblical traditions and secular unbelief. It is also important to show the personal and the communal aspects of the faith in order to embody viable alternatives for their daily lives.

    4. You have written a very helpful little book on the papacy. So tell us, what are positive and negative aspects of this new pope Francis?

    There is much sentimentalism about Pope Francis. He is a champion of the gospel of “welcoming all” and “showing compassion.” Many secular people, as well as many evangelicals, are fascinated by it. We should ask: What about repentance and faith in Christ alone? What about turning back from idolatry and following Christ wholeheartedly? What about putting the Word of God first? Some of the language of the Pope seems to resemble gospel emphases, yet the substance of it is still heavily sacramental and Marian, leaning towards a liberal form of Catholicism. He is the first Jesuit to become Pope and we should never forget that the Jesuit order was founded to fight against the Protestant Reformation by learning its secrets and using them against it.

    5. Let’s address the elephant in the room: Is the Pope the Anti-Christ?

    Luther, Calvin, the seventeenth-century Protestant confessions, the Puritans, Wesley, Spurgeon, et al., believed that the papacy (not this or that Pope) is the institution out of which the Anti-Christ will eventually come. I share this broad protestant consensus. The papacy claims christological and pneumatological titles and prerogatives (e.g. vicar of Christ, infallible teacher, supreme head of the church with full, immediate and universal power), coupling them with earthly political power. Remember that Popes are monarchs of a sovereign political state. In the papacy what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar tragically intermingle. This poisoned mixture is the potential milieu for the Anti-Christ to rise from.

    6. You are a pastor of a Reformed Baptist Church in Rome. Is a church like yours extremely rare? How has the culture perceived your congregation?

    Evangelicals are 1% of the population in Italy and Rome is no different from the rest of the country. We still struggle with the centuries-long prejudice of evangelicals being perceived as a cult. What makes our church distinct is that it is confessional (holding to the 1689 London Confession of Faith and belonging to a Reformed Baptist association of churches), urban (impacting the cultural, political, media, and academic institutions of the city with the gospel), and missional (living to the glory of God in all vocations and initiatives). Unlike cults, we cherish church history and claim to belong to the catholic (not necessarily Roman Catholic!) church. Unlike cults, the gospel we believe in is for the whole of life. Unlike cults, we encourage constructive and critical cultural engagement. Thankfully, there is a growing number of churches like that.

    7. Tell us about this new piece of property your church is purchasing. Why is this so exciting?

    Because of the presence of the Vatican, Rome city center has been, until recently, a “heresy free-zone.” Non-Catholic initiatives were not welcomed, if not forbidden. The last property that evangelical churches bought in the central area dates back to 1920. After nearly 100 years we are sending the message that we love the gospel and we love the city. We want to be a gospel community right at the heart of it. Apart from hosting the activities of the church, the property will also function as a theological study center. With IFED (a Reformed theological institute: we are providing outstanding theological training to lots of students. In Rome we will act as an outpost of evangelical theology, next to the Jesuit and the Dominican universities which are located 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 has just been launched ( It aims at helping the world-wide evangelical church to relate biblically to Roman Catholicism.

    8. If our readers get the chance to visit Rome, what two places must they see?

    Evangelical tourists should see the “dark” sides of Rome as far as religious freedom is concerned. For instance, Campo dei Fiori is a beautiful square next to the baroque Piazza Navona where Popes burnt heretics of all types, Protestants included. In the middle of Campo dei Fiori is an impressive bronze statue of Giordano Bruno recalling his execution that happened there in 1600 because he was a “free thinker” in an age and place where total submission to the power of the church was imposed. A number of Evangelical martyrs found the same destiny there.

    Another place to visit is Porta Pia where the Italian army entered the city and conquered it in 1870, thus ending the history of the Pontifical state. The Bible in Italian was forbidden in Rome up to 1870. It was through the breach of Porta Pia that the first Bibles printed by the British and Foreign Bible Society were smuggled into the city and freely distributed to the people. The tragic irony of Rome is that she is known as one of the cradles of Christianity, but the reality is that the Bible was a forbidden book for centuries. Generally, no tour guide tells you these stories or shows you these places.

    9. Let’s get down to the important stuff: which football team should we be rooting for (that is, “soccer” for our American readers!)?

    In Rome there are two top teams: Roma and Lazio. People tend to be very passionate about one or the other or – should I say – one against the other! People stop talking to you if you happen to support the other team. I was not born in Rome, so I am excused to support Torino FC, which is not perceived as a rival to most Romans. In this way, I don’t run the risk of losing a friend for supporting the wrong football team!

    10. If I have just one meal in Italy, what authentic dish should I order?

    Try “strozzapreti” (literally “priest stranglers”!). It’s a savory pasta dish, like thick and twisted macaroni. It can have various combinations with different tomato-based sauces. In popular culture, Roman Catholic countryside priests were teased because of their voracious appetites and impressive bellies. So this pasta was supposed to “strangle” them because of its thickness. The great Dante used the law of retaliation to punish people in the Inferno. Popular culture made a kind of pasta to punish greedy priests. A tasty reminder that no glutton will inherit the kingdom of God!


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