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 Kingdom use.
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 and suspense.
Will the present Pope make any difference in the Roman Catholic church?
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, very slowly.

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 church?
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 church?
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 fighting it?
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 loves us.
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 open opposition.
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 heaven.

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,

  Page:   ←Prev    |    Introduction   |    1. The Leaning Tower, the Lira, and  Women's Lib   |    2. Italian, Illegal Drugs, and Insulated  Buildings   |    3. Fiats, Florence, and  Furloughs    |    4. 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  Seed   |    9. Books, Broadcasting, and the Bible  College   |    10. Culture Shock and  Carpeting    |    11. A Word from My Heart   |    Next→  

Sincerity, self-support, and sowing the seed

Next chapterDo 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 ]

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