7. Communism, Catholicism, and the Charismatics
ebook: Pasta, pizza, and Pinocchio: Questions and answers about missionary service
in Italy (part 8)
Missions in Italy
In this electronic book (e-book), "Pasta, pizza, and Pinocchio,"
Howard Culbertson answers questions he has been asked about missionary work in Italy.
Originally published for the Nazarene Missions International mission book series, this
Nazarene Publishing House publication carried ISBN number 0-8341-0612-4. Some material has
been updated for this e-book edition.
- Did you ever think Communism was going to take over Italy?
- I didn't know. For a long time, the Communist party
was a potent political force in Italy with most of the nation's major cities having a Communist
mayor and one-third of the parliamentary seats in their control.
We didn't get paranoid about that, however. God had called us to announce the
Good News of His kingdom to
men of whatever political bent they might happen to be. In fact, three of our pastors -- Mario Cianchi, Angelo Cereda,
and Salvatore Scognamiglio were active Communists before their conversion and subsequent
call to preach. Their hunger to change the world has been transformed and harnessed by God for
- Did the Communists give the church any trouble?
- The official Communist party never bothered our work
in Italy, but in isolated incidents, radical leftists did threaten evangelicals. During the period when
nearly one-third of the Italian population was voting Communist, it was, of course, natural that
some of our good friends happened to be Communists.
- You have friends who were committed Communists? What do you talk
about with them?
- We talked about whatever friends talk about when they
are together -- except for politics. A political discussion with an Italian Communist could very
quickly turn into a tirade against the United States and all of our country's problems.
I learned early in Italy that I would probably have a chance
to talk to a Communist about only one of two things: (1) politics in which I would bravely defend
my country, or (2) Jesus Christ,
who is after all the most important
Person in my life. I had to learn early that I'm not the ambassador from the U.S. to Italy, but an
ambassador for Jesus.
- Are Communism and Catholicism getting together in Italy?
- On the political level, there are discussions between the
leaders of these two ideologies (the Catholics had a political party called "the Christian
Democrats"). Until 1960, Italian Communists were excommunicated from the church, but then
that all changed. When you had a population that was 95 percent Catholic yet voted 30 percent
Communist, you can see that there is some overlap of allegiance.
The Catholic church is, of course, a potent political force in
Italy. Among other things, its official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, is often
ranked among the world's top 10 newspapers.
- Do you think it's possible that the Pope is a born-again Christian?
- While some Catholics do use the word "converted," I
doubt the Pope would ever use the word "born-again" in referring to himself. Also, because the
Roman Catholic approach to being in right standing with God includes meritorious works, not
even the Pope is assured of his salvation (you never know when you've done enough penance or
good works!). The evangelical understanding of being born again is that it's God's free gift to
repenting sinners based solely on His grace.
If a Catholic is truly born-again in the sense we understand
Christ to mean it and in the sense we have experienced it in our own lives, it's due to a merciful
God rather than to Catholic church doctrines.
Popes have used near-blasphemous titles for themselves. I
have heard people in a crowd in St. Peter's Square in Rome shouting "Salvatore, Salvatore"
(Savior, Savior) at the Pope.
- Have you personally ever seen the Pope?
- Yes, I have. He appears every Sunday on a balcony
overlooking St. Peter's Square in addition to saying mass in the cathedral on special holidays.
One year an Olivet Nazarene University women's choir visited Rome at Epiphany, the January 6
celebration of the visit of the wise men. Pope Paul VI was in
the cathedral celebrating a mass when we arrived. He was borne on the shoulders of several men
down the central aisle on his ornate throne. He passed within about 30 feet of us.
- What is it like in Italy at the time of the election of a new Pope?
- There is the kind of suspense that hangs in the air in the U.S. during presidential election
time, but the papal election process is so super-secret that it creates an additional aura of mystery
- Will the present Pope make any difference in the Roman Catholic
- Probably so. Any man with authority and influence
over 700 million people can leave a lasting imprint. On the other hand, the church is so immense
and the Pope himself is part of such an entrenched hierarchy that significant changes come very,
When he was first elected, some hoped he'd modify the
Catholic position on the marriage of priests. But, in one of his first major addresses, Pope John
Paul II reaffirmed the church's traditional celibacy rule. Many Protestants had hoped for some
change in what they saw as Roman Catholic worship of Mary. But, in his first papal letter
addressed to all the church's bishops, John Paul II wrote, "Nobody else can bring us as Mary can
into the divine and human dimensions of the mystery of Redemption." In one of his first visits to
Latin America, he spoke of Mary as the spiritual unity that binds the church together -- a work
Protestants say is of the Holy
Spirit, not of Mary.
- Is it true there's only one burial spot left for the Popes and that this is a
definite sign that the end is near?
- I first heard that from a radio preacher. And he was
wrong. Popes' remains are found all over Rome, from the catacombs to the main sanctuary of St. Peter's Cathedral. Most of the recent
Popes have been buried in the
basement of St. Peter's Cathedral. The cathedral is the largest Christian church in the world. So,
it's basement is enormous . . . and they don't need it for Sunday school space. So
there's room for a lot more caskets down there.
It's always better to stick with biblical prophetic clues for
the end times rather than trying to count remaining burial spots for Popes during a one-day tourist
junket through Rome!
- What do you make of the new evangelicalism in the Roman Catholic
- Inasmuch as most of it seems to involve only forms of
worship and has not affected basic dogmas, I'm not sure it could be called "evangelicalism." They
use some foot-tapping songs now and the mass is said in the language of the people. But most of
these changes are more cosmetic than they are the kind of profound, far-reaching developments
that would alter the doctrines and practices that produced the Protestant Reformation.
For instance, while Pope John Paul II spoke of his obedience
to Christ in his acceptance speech for the papacy, he also spoke of his trust in Mary, "the mother
of the church." In Catholic publications, there's talk of a "liberation Mariology," a
politically-oriented theology of Mary in which she represents God's poor, the oppressed, and the
downtrodden of the earth.
In Italy at least, Catholicism still remains a mixture of pagan
customs, magical and even demonic beliefs, Muslim practices, and Christian doctrines. This is all
salted liberally with humanistic pragmatism.
- Don't you find that the American Catholic church is quite different from the Italian Catholic
- There is more genuine pluralism and even sharp
divergence within Catholicism than we non-Catholics usually imagine. Historically, Catholicism
has been a very syncretistic religion. That is, instead of replacing other religions, it tends to
absorb them, re-baptizing practices and even beliefs in ways that make them acceptable to
Roman Catholics. In the U.S. this tendency has caused Roman Catholicism to be greatly affected
by the strong evangelical Christianity of many Americans.
On the other hand, many of the pilgrims who made those
"holy pilgrimages" to Rome in the Holy Year of 1975 were Americans. On any given day in St.
Peter's, many of those kissing St. Peter's toe will be Americans. And blatant idolatry and other
non-biblical doctrines literally leap out at you from the pages of magazines like Catholic
Digest. I was also surprised at the number of Marian shrines I saw in yards here in the
U.S. during home assignment traveling.
- But don't you think we'd be a lot better off praying for the Roman Catholic church than
- Yes, I do. We're not engaged in a battle of converting
Catholics to Protestantism, but of converting sinners to Christ. Our enemy is the devil. Our
message is one of deliverance from sin and of new life in Christ. Our prayers must include lost
and Satan-deluded people regardless of
their religious background.
On the other hand, we do have to be careful not to fall into the treacherous trap of the syncretistic
"theology of dialogue" which says that since there's good in all, all must, there, be good.
- How did the Catholic church manage to pay for all those cathedrals like St.
Peter's in Rome?
- As a matter of fact, the building-fund drives that helped finance those huge structures, and
particularly St. Peter's, were one thing that sparked the Protestant Reformation. Much of the
construction of St. Peter's was paid for through the selling of indulgences, that is, in return for
the payment of a fee, a person could get out of so many years of Purgatory for themselves or
some relative. This merchandising of God's grace was the final straw for a monk named Martin
Luther and up went his 95 Theses (debate questions) on a church door in Germany. He'd been
disturbed about a number of things before.
Then along came this indulgence salesman chanting, "When a coin into the coffer rings, a
soul from purgatory springs."
- Don't the Catholics believe their prayers to Mary and to the saints are like petitions to a
powerful man's advisers?
- Yes, that's the logic I've heard from several Italian -- as well as American -- Catholics. Of
course, this rationale has no biblical basis. I go through a powerful man's advisors because that
may be the only way I can get access to that man. He does not know about me, care about me,
or even have time for me.
That's not true of the God we know and serve. When that giant curtain in the Jerusalem Temple
was ripped in two by supernatural forces 2,000 years ago, it symbolized the elimination forever of
the need for you or me to have to go through anyone else to reach the Presence of the God who
- Don't the Italians still pray for the dead?
- Yes, they do. With their belief in purgatory as a necessary cleansing center for heaven, they
believe that intercession by living persons shortens the time one has to spend in purgatory.
Special masses can still be purchased to be said for the dead
in Italian Catholic churches. There are, in fact, in St. Peter's Cathedral, secondary side altars
where these masses are said continually for dead people. (Payment, of course, has been made for
each of these masses.)
- Do you face much opposition from the Catholic church?
- Not today. Following the Vatican II Council meetings
in the early 1960s, the attitude toward Protestants has softened considerably. It was that Council,
led by Pope John XXIII, that began to refer to Protestants as "separated brethren" instead of
"heretics." It was in that same period that they quit excommunicating the Communists. There are still
occasional, isolated instances of
- Do converts face opposition from their families?
- Yes, they do. A person's religion, along with
everything else, is to be subordinated to the well-being of the Italian family. Sometimes a family
will consider that a new convert has betrayed his family's Roman Catholic heritage.
Grandmothers get very concerned when they begin to realize that their infant grandchildren will
not be baptized. This would eliminate, according to Roman Catholic belief, their ever going to
We are trying to use these strong family ties for evangelistic
ends. In the Florence church in the past five years, a revival has been going on within one family
unit as member after member has come to the lord.
- Has the charismatic movement touched Italy? Does the Church of the Nazarene there face
any problems with it?
- The charismatic movement does not seem to have
taken root in the Italian religious scene. Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor any of the other
non-Pentecostal groups in Italy have any groups of charismatics in them. There was a large
Catholic charismatic meeting in Rome some years ago, but newspaper reports I read said almost
everyone there was a foreigner.
To be sure, half of Italy's evangelicals are from
Pentecostal-type denominations such as the Assemblies of God. But the "tongues" movement has remained
within denominational lines.
If anything, the Nazarene churches in Italy gain adherents
from these Pentecostal groups rather than losing to them. We used to say in Oklahoma that
Baptists made really good Nazarenes when they got sanctified. In Italy, Pentecostals make
wonderful Nazarenes when they really do experience the Holy
Spirit in all of His fullness.
. . . [ continue reading ]
-- Howard Culbertson,
1. The Leaning Tower, the Lira, and
Women's Lib |
2. Italian, Illegal Drugs, and Insulated
3. Fiats, Florence, and
The Military, Missionaries, and the
Mafia | 5. Marco
Polo and Ronald McDonald |
6. The Cerratos,
Alabaster Churches, and
Work Crews | 7. Communism,
Catholicism, and the Charismatics |
8. Sincerity, Self-support, and Sowing the
9. Books, Broadcasting, and the Bible
10. Culture Shock and
| 11. A
Word from My Heart
Sincerity, self-support, and sowing the seed
|Do you believe Catholics who are really sincere
will be lost? . . . What percentage of the converts remain Christian?. . . Why don't you attempt to
convert some of those rich Italians? . . . [ more ]
More on Italy for you
You might also like these