226. If the Pope thinks that Rome is a “mission field.”

Evangelicals have known for centuries that Rome is a “mission field.” It is no coincidence that as soon as the breach of Porta Pia opened in 1870 (when Rome was liberated from papal power and the Pontifical State ended), Bibles and Christian tracts were immediately smuggled in to further the evangelization of the city. Despite being considered the cradle of Christianity, Rome had experienced a somewhat tyrannical religious monopoly by Roman Catholicism over the centuries. Still, it could not be said to be an evangelized city. Very religious, yes, but Christian, no. Rome was a mission field because it prevented the free circulation of God’s Word in the vernacular language and suppressed any attempts to bring about a biblical reformation.
For this reason, after 1870, evangelism and church planting activities were initiated by evangelicals surrounded by suspicion and, at times, opposition. This continues to this day. By evangelical standards, Rome was and is still a mission field. With around 100 evangelical churches and a population of 4 million, it is indeed a mission field.
Since 1870, much water has passed under the bridges of the river Tiber. Today, even the Roman Catholic pope says Rome is “a mission field.” Meeting with the Roman Catholic clergy on 13th January, Francis said just that: the heart of Roman Catholicism, the seat of the papacy, the center of Roman Catholicism, the city that Popes have claimed their own is a “mission field.”
What does that mean? The challenges of secularization, disengagement, and abandonment of religious practice are putting increasing pressure on the Roman Catholic Church right here in the eternal city. Accustomed to imposing its primacy on consciences for centuries, now that its authority structure and the social imposition of customs no longer work automatically, even Roman Catholicism in Rome is in a crisis of numbers and participation. Masses (with exceptions) are semi-deserted, and parishes (with exceptions) are perhaps attended for the services they offer to the young or the poor, but certainly are no longer known to be places of spirituality (e.g. prayer, catechesis). Much of the Roman population is not “active” in Catholic practices.
Rome is still religious in its “hardware” but less and less so in its “software.” Everything in Rome speaks of the established and pervasive presence of the Roman Catholic Church (palaces, institutions, churches, the Vatican). Still, it is beginning to perceive itself as a presence needing self-defense and promotion. So, the pope, who is the Roman Catholic bishop of Rome, says that the city must be considered as a mission field to be reached with the “new evangelization” by an “outgoing” church, the two passwords that he has been using since the 2013 programmatic document “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Although it may appear so, what Pope Francis said is not a new thing. Back in 1974 (exactly 50 years ago), Cardinal Poletti, then the pope’s vicar for the city of Rome, said that Rome was a “mission field.” It caused a stir then. Ten years after celebrating the splendors of the Second Vatican Council, the church began to see Rome not so much as “our” city but as a place to be reached.
When Francis says Rome is a “mission field,” one must also see the other side of the coin. On 4th January, he met with the Mayor of Rome, Roberto Gualtieri, and the President of the Lazio Region, Francesco Rocca—something that does not happen for any other faith community. The city’s two highest political and administrative authorities are not generally received “in audience” by religious leaders in their offices. However, the pope does it frequently, and they go to him with deferential attitudes. He is a top political figure.
Four days later on 8th January, the president of the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, signed the hiring of 6,500 new religion teachers (chosen by Roman Catholic bishops and paid for by Italian taxpayers) with the Italian government. This, too, is not a practice of a “mission field” but of a country enslaved to a religious denomination. A mirror of an unjust privilege is the fact that in public, state-funded schools, Roman Catholic teaching is the only option available for students and is paid for by the state.
And then, on Sunday evening, 14th January, Pope Francis was interviewed live on prime-time: an hour-long, almost kneeling interview by anchorman Fabio Fazio on “Che tempo che fa” show. It was on this program that, after defending the blessing of same-sex and irregular couples, when asked about the reality of hell, the pope said: “I like to think hell is empty; I hope it is.” Again, this is not an opportunity that other religious leaders are given, but it does not signal the fact that Italy is a “mission field” in the sense that evangelicals would give to the expression. Rome is rather an “occupied” field by a religion only.
The Roman Catholic hierarchy may consider Rome to be a “mission field,” but the pope and the Roman Catholic Church are not letting go of their grip on the city. Evidently, the pope feels the ground shaking under his feet and clings to the political-economic-institutional-media privileges of the past. He says he wants to do “mission,” but what he does is manage power.
For evangelicals, Rome was and is a mission field in need of evangelization by people and churches who witness the biblical gospel. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6). Neither the promise of political favour nor the prospect of social status, the gospel is the message of salvation in Jesus Christ alone by faith alone according to the Bible alone. This is the evangelical mission to the city of Rome. The pope’s is something else.

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): www.reformandainitiative.org

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: www.ifeditalia.org) 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 (www.reformandainitiative.org). 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!


100. The Idols of Rome

January 31st, 2015

Idolatry has become a theme of renewed interest in recent theological discussion. It neatly describes what the Bible warns against, and it helps to make sense of the overarching narrative of the Christian message. Idols are the enemies of God and try to replace God as the ultimate source of human life. Here is how Tim Keller identifies the essence of an idol in Augustinian terms: “If you love anything more than God, even though you believe in God, if there is anything in your life that is more important to your significance or security than God, then that is an idol – a kind of pseudo-god, a false god, a covenant master”.[1]

Idols are counterfeit gods that infiltrate personal lives and divert them from searching for God and following Him. It would be utterly simplistic to think of idols only operating in individuals or groups of people. If the presence of idols is so pervasive in the whole of human life, certainly they have a place in cities. Actually, cities are spatial and cultural spaces for idols to shape and destroy what comes under their dominion. Idolatry is therefore an “interpretative key” to come to terms with the spiritual condition of the city. Here I offer my homework as far as the city of Rome is concerned. This is a tentative sketch of what the idols of Rome look like. They are in chronological order, going back to the ancient past of Rome down to its present-day outlook. The idols do not replace one another, but they build on each other.

Idol n. 1 PAX ROMANA (The Roman Peace)

From the second century BC until 476 AD, Rome dominated the ancient world. Its status quo was named pax romana, the Roman peace. Its goal was to have dominion over nations and to exercise political power. Through military conquest this “peace” was taken to the world. But it was hardly a real “peace” for anyone. It was actually based on the use of violence, the imposition of slavery and the oppression of dissenters. The Pax Romana is gone as a political system but its achievements in terms of architecture and ruins are famous throughout the world. Moreover, it influences the culture of the city by way of infusing a kind of spiritual arrogance and the illusion of being at the center of the world. The gospel brings another kind of peace: the shalom of God, the peace of God that gives dignity and reconciliation in Christ.

Idol n. 2 PAPAL CATHOLICA (The Religious Stronghold)

As the Rome Empire faded away, the city was run until 1870 by the Roman Catholic Church with its highest institution, i.e. the Pope. Popes considered themselves to be the true inheritors of the emperors. Of course, they also brought some Christian elements, thus practicing a kind of assimilation between pagan and gospel motives. The main ideology that drove the city was still “imperial” and political at its very heart. The city grew full of magnificent religious buildings, wanting to show greatness and power. As far as the spiritual influence of the Papal “catholica” is concerned, the church has been running people’s lives for centuries, exercising political and economic power. The gospel that Rome needs to hear and see is instead a message based on God’s word alone (sola Scriptura), centered on Christ alone (solus Christus), grounded on grace alone (sola gratia).

Idol n. 3 THE PALAZZO (The Palazzo)

After the unification of Italy (1861), Rome became the capital of the Italian nation (1870). Following the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, now the state ruled the city, adding another layer to its spiritual outlook. Rome is a city where political structures are far from transparent, and its standards of governance are far from just. A general shrewdness of spirit marks public life. Rome is a city of political maneuvering where things can be settled if you are “in” the right circle. As the gospel alternative, the church needs to be the place where a culture of responsibility is promoted, in personal life, family, society, politics, etc.

Idol n. 4  LA DOLCE VITA (Sweet Life)

Finally, Rome is also famous for its “sweet life”, from the title of the movie by Federico Fellini La dolce vita (1960). Good food, easy life, a-moral pleasures, and sex without commitment – all contribute to the shape of the dream of a good life. Of course, there is much emptiness around and its promises are futile. Real life is different, yet the sweet life inspires people and nurtures their expectations. The gospel needs to match the aspiration of a good life, while denouncing the slippery slope of a life without Christ. After all, the Christian life means to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

The church needs to be aware of these idols, as well as to embody viable gospel alternatives. The gospel not only denounces the bankruptcy of idolatry, but also fills life with real meaning, love and hope.

(This is an excerpt of my article “Identifying the Idols of the City” in Tim Keller, Center Church Europe. Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, Franeker: Uitgeverij Van Wijnen, 2014, pp. 168-174. The book can be bought at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Center-church-Europe-balanced-gospel-centered/dp/9051944802)

[1] Timothy J. Keller, ‘Getting Out (Exodus 4)’, in: D.A. Carson (ed.), The Scriptures Testify About Me, Nottingham: IVP 2013, p. 41.