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Christianity in Sicily

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Category Articles
Date June 17, 2004

On Tuesday June 1 at 11.20 we flew for an hour and a half from Milan in the north of Italy to Catania on the island of Sicily. Milan is nearer to London than it is to Sicily, and there was a time when it was nearer culturally, but we did not sense that difference today. We were conscious in Sicily that we were very much in Italy; the Alfa & Omega Publications headed by two pastors with a common vision and deep friendship who preach in both the places we stayed united for us the north and south of this great, but spiritually needy, nation.

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, midway between Gibraltar and Suez, with a population of 5 million people. It has its own strong dialect, and even dialects within its own dialect varying from district to district (as have other regions of Italy). But with the advent of television the Italian language is all conquering. Hitherto only 2 percent of Italians have been unable to speak at least one of their nation’s dialects. Compared to the observations in our twenty year old guidebook Sicily has undergone great changes in the past couple of decades and is no longer the poor island written about there. There are about three hundred Assemblies of God on Sicily and some of them are big – I mean, hundreds of members. There are probably as many independent Pentecostal congregations. You think, "Wonderful!" but then you learn that there are dozens of these churches just in the city of Palermo, and again dozens in the small city of Messina. Almost on every street corner in those communities you’ll find them, nearly all being a result of splits from other Pentecostal churches. Rivalry has been another factor undermining Pentecostalism’s witness to the gospel

Also on Sicily there are numbers of Brethren assemblies, but just a handful of liberal churches in a couple of the large cities, and as everywhere they are small and elderly and dying. The Waldensians had a few strong causes here a century ago, with good social work such as a Christian school, but though some Waldensian social activities continues their congregations are in terminal decline, yet they continue to get disproportionate TV coverage. The media people are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and the Vatican is given massive access to the four major channels, but when in the cause of ‘balance’ they need to present a Protestant voice then TV companies turn to the Waldensians. So the ‘Christian’ voice they hear is the liberal voice. The Waldensians have the oldest publishing house in Italy going back to 1855. Translations of Alistair McGrath’s books are in evidence in their large catalogue.

The island of Sicily is the triangle about the size of Wales that looks as if it is about to be kicked by the toe of the Italian boot. Africa is just about 100 miles away to the south of the island. Sicily is midway between Europe and Africa, though Tripoli on the North Africa coast is actually further north than southern Sicily, but the temperature on the island is not as hot as you would expect. Sicily is also the headquarters of the infamous Mafia, but visiting Welsh pastors invited to hold a few meetings are not in a lot of danger from the Cosa Nostra, those big-time hoodlums in smart suits carrying violin cases containing machine-guns.

MOUNT ETNA

The plane from Milan flew into Catania past the 10,000 feet volcano, Mount Etna. Some smoke was probably coming out of it, I was told, but it could not be seen because it merges with low-lying clouds. We would like to have caught a glimpse of that classic scene of a high plume of smoke ascending from a volcano’s peak. The last big eruption was two years ago, and before that there was one in 1983 and they cause chaos. They last for seven weeks and the flow of lava can reach the city borders. In ’83 many birds were made delirious by the eruption and flew round and round until they collapsed exhausted on the glowing lava. Rabbits and foxes took to their burrows and lairs and were killed. A note for our mountaineering friends: the final 3,000 feet of the mountain is all hard black lava with plenty of snow in the gullies, and should you climb with a party to the top and gaze into the crater it is unlikely that any activity will be seen. There is little reward for a hard climb, but I am unfit even to consider such an enterprise and our Italian friends have no heart for it. We will stick to Roman mosaic floors and Greek theatres. Mount Etna is not a tourist attraction except when it erupts, and then it is a media attraction. Everyone else gets going out of the way of the lava bombs and lava flows.

Giovanni Marino met us at the airport. He is a third generation evangelical Christian and is in full-time work for Alfa & Omega, running the website, answering the orders, mailing out the books, doing the accounts, checking up on the new translations. A humble man Giovanni sets his hand to many tasks and does them well. He is in his thirties and for a year, in order to improve his English, lived in Surrey and Whitby and Blackpool where he has friends in the Tabernacle Baptist Church. He drove us home to meet his wife Eloise and little boy Samuele. Later that day he took us out into the country to meet his pastor Nazzareno (Reno) Ulfo with whom we are staying for a week. From his home can be seen the mountainous terrain of Sicily. The hills are covered with vines and olive trees. In the gardens are lemon and lime trees, prickly pear cactus plants, fig trees and ornamental palms. Sicily is a land of agricultural abundance, with extensive fields of grain; it is the bread basket of Italy. Attempts have been made by various governments, especially under Mussolini, to introduce industry here, but it has generally been a ruinous plan, the golden coast became the concrete coast of cheaply built factories and apartment blocks. The Sicilian looks rather pityingly at the Welshman: "You don’t even grow olives in Wales, let alone oranges, or lemons, or pineapples? Dear, dear, what a miserable little place! Wine, then? What about wine? No grapes? What do you do in your country?"

NAZZARENO ULFO

That was not the response of our host, the Sicilian pastor Reno Ulfo. He was raised in an RC home but during his teenage years he discovered that his harsh Jesuit schoolteacher was a man with pornography addiction and this spurred Reno’s exit from the Roman church. At college a fellow student spoke to him often about Christ and by the time he finally went along to an Assemblies of God congregation one Sunday he believes he had already become regenerate. That was a simple service, hymns, prayer, reading and gospel preaching, but during it he received assurance that he was a Christian. He went on to study in the AOG college in Rome and with his keen intelligence seemed destined to be one of the obvious future leaders of the denomination and was so encouraged by the AOG administration. It was in the college that he first came across the Puritans. Impressed with the deep reservoir of truth they displayed he determined to learn English. He taught himself the language by reading Spurgeon’s "Lectures to my Students." The progress was painfully slow. It took a year to complete the book, in the early days simply reading a few sentences in an hour was an effort – Spurgeon can play with words and has such extensive resources of language. That learning year put Reno in good stead. His command of English is splendid, and his familiarity with the writings of men from the age of the Reformers to the giants of today is enviable.

Fifteen years ago Reno Ulfo and Andrea Ferrari were students in the Roman theological college sharing with one another their discoveries of free grace books. They dreamed of the possibility of their fellow Italians one day reading these treasures for themselves. John Owen’s Works, Volume 6, had been particularly helpful to them both. "What might happen if this volume were translated into Italian?" they said. Now their dreams have been more than realised with Owen’s great writings on Temptation and Mortification translated into Italian and awaiting publication in the next couple of months, and this book comes hard on the heels of a host of other notable translations. The sight of that growing pile of volumes published by Alfa & Omega (www.alfaeomega.org) strengthens Italian Christians in the wilderness of their nation’s religious and secular life. Now their long-term vocation as they preach the gospel is to persuade fellow Christians to read and profit from such books, especially the pastors. "Maybe it will be after our days the fires will fall and the truths of these books will spread from the Swiss border to Sicily." Today is the time of planting and the sowing and the praying for God to give the increase.

A FREE GRACE CONGREGATION

After seminary training Reno began his ministry back home in Sicily preaching in an AOG congregation for a couple of years and then moving on to pastor another. He is a shrewd judge of Christian experience, Pentecostal claims and aspirations and he taught the word of God to both his congregations. With increasing boldness he preached the biblical way of salvation, until there came a time when he was asked to give a paper on this topic to the denomination. When he opened up the theme of the saving grace of God, the electing love to many sinners, regeneration by the Sovereign Spirit then denominational processes were set up which resulted in his excommunication from the AOG. The family were given ten days to leave their manse and within a short time they had moved to a flat. Numbers of men and women from the congregation, about sixty originally, left the AOG with him and a new church was started in Caltanissetta meeting in attractive modern rented rooms. That was October 1998. Numbers initially decreased somewhat when a greater understanding of the implications of reformation, both church and individual, spread among the hearers. Today new people continually come to see what distinguishes this congregation and others travel for an hour to get there. The church is seeking a building of its own, a little complex where the Alfa & Omega publishing could also be housed. Reno is the man who translated into Italian Jonathan Edwards’ "Religious Affections" which Alfa & Omega published a year ago. He has left the coasts of Sicily many times, firstly when he studied in Rome and subsequently preaching in the USA where he has attended ministerial conferences with Andrea Ferrari. He is now in his late thirties, is married to Giovanna; they have two sons, Giovanni (11) and Luca (8).

REPUBLIC DAY IN SICILY

June 2 is Republic Day in Italy, a national holiday, and so on that Wednesday the congregation were invited to Reno’s home for a barbecue. The lamb, pork and sausages were cooked on three barbecues, and the men were in charge of that hot work, while the women prepared the salad, egg, rolls, toasted bread with tomatoes, fruit salad and cakes. Several long tables were joined together, and chairs set all around them. We ate and talked for a few hours as the women brought out one delicacy after another. One thought, "This is the last course," but then the fruit, say, would come on the table in large bowls. A kind of apricot, rather like lychees, was one of the more unusual fruits, and finally expresso coffee. All the time there was noisy conversation and laughter with young people listening and playing together. Two men spoke English fluently and another had some knowledge, and so a lot of the time we two listened quite enchanted to all this happy Italian being spoken all around us. It must be the most musical and mellifluous language in the world. It was worth coming here just to sit in the centre of this linguistic orchestra. The Italian language lacked the letter ‘j’ – like Welsh – until the 1960s when wearing jeans became an international dress, but still Italians tend to say ‘yeans.’ In Welsh too the ‘j’ has crept in, more through ‘jam’ than ‘jeans’ I guess. The letter ‘j’ has even entered for the first time the Welsh Bible in its new translation.

Iola and I were constrained to sing our national anthem. Then an hour later in unison they all sang unaccompanied and without any copies of the words one of their favourite hymns, three verses of "The church’s one foundation." Reno later said to me, "I love the classical hymns." I addressed them with Reno in his deep voice interpreting, and then we dispersed a little, while many of the congregation went for a little walk along the hillside and others sat around and chatted. We went to our room and rested as we had had a long walk in the morning through the country lanes. There is a rich variety of flowers in the hedgerows, butterflies abound, and blue doves fly into the dark olive trees. Little lizards pause on the stones before disappearing to safety at the sign of any movement. While walking along we had to dodge the occasional car. At one part an old road sign, embedded into the vegetation, lay on the verge. "I wonder what this sign said, and what animals we’ll find under it?" I said to Iola. I lifted it up, tearing the grass fronds around it, and discovered it was a warning of bumps in the road ahead – which are still there a few years later. But instead of ants and beetles under the sign there was a brown snake. It didn’t move, and I had no stick to lift it up and look at it. It was not poisonous. So we lowered the sign and back to her slumbers Mrs Snake returned.

SYRACUSE

Thursday we were taken by Giovanni, who was accompanied by his wife Eloise and little Samuele, to the coastal town of Syracuse two hours away at the south-west of the island on the Ionian Sea. Luke writes about Paul’s journey there, "After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island. It was an Alexandria ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there for three days" (Acts 28:11&12). At that time it rivalled Athens as one of the most magnificent cities in the world, but Paul could not stay and preach there (as the significance of the place merited) because he was under arrest and sailing to Rome. For over 250 years Rome had been in control of Sicily. Archimedes lived in Syracuse when Rome first laid siege to the city and he suggested and invented mirrors and magnifying glasses to try to blind the Roman invaders and burn the sails of their ships, but to little avail. After two years Syracuse fell and Archimedes was put to the sword – just after his ‘Eureka’ experiment. A large tomb in the centre of the town has been credited mistakenly by the locals as being his burial place. This tomb is actually two hundred years later than Archimedes. Today the city of Syracuse is light and bustling with 130,000 residents. Lady Diana sailed into the harbour on a yacht a dozen years ago we were informed.

On the outskirts of the city we were met by a man in his late thirties riding a motorbike, a metalworker named Renato Prato. His opening words to me were, "You are a Puritan?" Then he added, "I am a Puritan too, but just a little one," and he held his thumb and forefinger a half inch apart. He spoke only Italian and Giovanni had to translate our exchanges. "I can only read the Puritans that have been translated into Italian," he said sadly, pronouncing emphatically, "Richard Sibbes." "The Bruised Reed," I said. He nodded. Giovanni himself had translated the first draft of that book, whose foreword was written by Maurice Roberts. There on my left was one of the first Italians in the new reformation to be translating the Puritans and on my right another Italian to have profited from those labours. Renato comes to the Alfa & Omega family conferences, but there is no pulpit in Syracuse yet where the free grace convictions of the apostle Paul are preached. A follower of Paul must stay there longer than the apostle did, and preach his doctrines with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.

We followed Renato on his bike as he weaved his way through the city’s traffic. The city has some fascinating archaeological remains. There is a Greek open air theatre, the largest in Europe, hewn out of the rock and originally seating 15,000 people. They still perform Greek tragedies through the summer nights. Outside it is a huge sacrificial altar from the third century BC, Hieron’s Altar, perhaps the largest ever erected by man. It saw up to 450 bulls per day being slaughtered on the stones. What desperation there is in the natural man’s heart to find an expiation of his guilt. Nearby is a vast Roman amphitheatre for gladiatorial conflicts, mock sea-battles, and the killing of wild animals captured in nearby Africa. What brutal days. Steadily Christianity influenced public sensitivities and triumphed over the wilder aspects of paganism. Hieron’s Altar ceased being used when an understanding of the mighty work of the Lamb of God spread. Medieval Christians of the seventh century took over Athene’s temple in the heart of Syracuse, and built onto its side wall. You can see the twelve columns of the original temple along the Minerva Street side of this Cathedral. Such syncretism between Greece and Jerusalem cried out for further reformation. It was in Syracuse in the 1950s that a statue of Mary was claimed to be shedding tears of blood. Hundreds of thousands of people came to see this phenomenon and kneel before it and pray, certainly enough money was given for the ecclesiastical leaders to erect a vast new building.

PIAZZA ARMERINA

Two days later we visited Piazza Armerina to see its stunning mosaics, pavement decorations of an Imperial Roman villa nestling in a valley bordered by forests of hazel and oak. The villa was built at the end of the third century AD as a hunting-lodge and elaborate spa probably belonging to Maximian the Emperor or certainly a wealthy aristocrat. The mosaics are the largest and best preserved of their kind in the world and cover the floors of some fifty rooms. They are the greatest treasures to have survived in Sicily from Roman times and were excavated only in 1950. They show hunting scenes, the labours of Hercules, the capture of wild animals in Africa and Asia and their transportation to Europe, fishing scenes and even young women in sort-of-bikinis taking part in such sports as discus throwing. Rico takes visiting preachers to this magnificent sight as it is less than an hour’s drive from his home, and he is a knowledgeable tour guide. One of the happiest memories of our trip there was to hear as we drove along a CD of Ted Donnelly preaching on the text, "You will not come to me that you might have life." What magnificent preaching, from every possible angle. Hearing that made you long to get into the pulpit and preach better that you have every preached before. A few days later we had another happy touristy morning visiting Cefalu, a delightful seaside resort dominated by another huge cathedral

We saw some fruit of the beginnings of ongoing reformation on Friday. In the morning I began preparing sermons for nine days’ time, but with limited success, having more joy on Saturday. Then on Friday afternoon we went to see the operations of the Alfa & Omega publishing company. It has a warehouse in the midst of San Cataldo and nearby is its little office. The warehouse was piled high with boxes of new books awaiting customers’ orders, and ten minutes’ walk away is the office. It is in the oldest part of the town, climbing up a steep cobblestone street of the Via Caruso, houses almost touching on each side of us, and turning into the equally narrow Via Mammano underneath the overhanging balconies from which washing is always hanging. The office is a tiny converted house with one room upstairs and another downstairs. Giovanni Marino packs the books downstairs and upstairs he and Antonio Morlino continue to translate and prepare for a printer the steady flow of books that Alfa & Omega are producing.

THE EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN CHURCH SOLA GRAZIA, CALTANISSETTA

That night we attended the regular Friday night meeting of the Evangelical Christian Church Sola Grazia in Caltanissetta where pastor Reno Ulfo translated my sermon. It was the same on Sunday at both the meetings; we sang hymns, the tunes of most of which were known to us, and the people were loving and responsive even though they had had to listen to both the messages through an interpreter. I wonder how we would cope with that in Wales? Some people travel forty miles or more to be there. The church’s pleasant rooms are at the bottom of a 7 storey block of flats. There are 6 balconies above the entrance to the church and clothes are hung out to dry on many of them. In fact on the balcony above the entrance to the church different clothes were fluttering in the breeze on all the four occasions we entered or left the meeting place, including someone’s unmentionables. Sunday is obviously this family’s wash day. Down the stairs is the place they might learn of the Golgotha laundry where the dark stains of sin can be removed from the soul. If only they would come! But the church has to go out to them. All around the meeting place are blocks of flats and the congregation regularly does leaflet drops.

On the way home from church we passed a political meeting in a square where an anti-Communist party was holding a meeting for 80 bored people with the police keeping a respectful but equally bored distance. Everyone seemed glad when the politicians disappeared and a pop group started to sing behind the highest amplification – you could feel the drum beat thumping your chest. They were the kind of band that gets no points in the Eurovision Song Competition. We did not tarry long in that square. Italy is in the midst of the European elections, just like Britain, but what distinguishes this country are the large photographs of the politicians that are stuck up everywhere. Invariably middle aged men they smile at you from every kind of wall and hoarding, usually four or eight copies of the same big photograph – a superfluity of politician. Here in Caltanissetta the man standing for the Communist party is named Sainte Calvin.

THE VALLEY OF THE TEMPLES

On Tuesday we were taken by Reno to the coastal city of Agrigento and its ‘Valley of the Temples’. We were told that there were about twenty temples scattered through the area. It is the most important archaeological site on the island of Sicily. The new town of Agrigento has a marvellous situation on two hills – most Sicilian cities seem to be on hillsides – but there is little else one can say about it. The Mafia controlled the building in the 1950s bribing corrupt politicians to let them build how and where they wanted. In 1966 a large part of a housing estate collapsed when the building work caused a landslide. Do you know how many people were killed? Seven and a half thousand men, women and children.

We spent no time in the new town but went to the opposite side of a fertile valley, to a long hillside along the crest of which were erected some of the most spectacular temples in the world 500 years before Jesus Christ. The Temple of Heracles and the Temple of Concord are wonderfully preserved buildings like the Athens’ Acropolis. The Temple of Concord was in fact turned into a church for 1200 years. Another temple, of Jupiter, is a vast ruin covering a few acres with mountains of masonry. One of its giant men (and there were dozens of them supporting the temple roof) has been put together as the centrepiece of the local museum’s main room. It is twenty feet high. The museum is filled with a bewildering array of Greek artefacts, the vases are superb.

PSALM SINGING IN SANTA ELISABETTA

We visited a small town on our way to Santa Elisabetta and stopped in a small restaurant to have an authentic Sicilian lunch which was mouth-wateringly good. I have to be careful describing the Italian food we were given each day or some will imagine that all we did was eat our way around the nation. I cannot think that anywhere else in Italy they cook such a quality and variety of food as they do in Sicily. However, they never put butter on their bread. Reno’s two boys watched me doing this and were fascinated. Finally one said, "Let me try it," and I passed the butter to him. He put it on his bread. "Strange," he said. Then on we went to Santa Elisabetta where Vito Tangorra is the pastor of a church called "The Evangelical Church: The Reformation." He comes out of the Assemblies of God and it was Spurgeon’s New Park Street Pulpit which significantly helped him to come to the doctrines of grace. He is getting connected with the European Missionary Fellowship, Daniel Webber in fact was preaching here just a week ago. Vito would like to study in Welwyn. He needs to come to the UK for a while as he has very little English, understanding more than he is able to speak. For 40,000 pounds he bought this large new house which has two modern apartments where he and his family live. It is at the top of Karl Marx Street and the church meets in a spacious room on the ground floor and then there also a couple of garages one of which could contain a truck. He runs his own cleaning business and employs four men. The town has a population of just 2,600 people but it is near to a much larger town. The roads to Santa Elisabetta are pot-holed, and in places the tarmac has been worn away and cars bump along on the earth underneath. It is not a good place for employment, and so it is strange that here there should be such a constitutionally reformed church. The congregation has gone over to metrical psalms and had printed six on the hymn sheet they produced for this service. We stood to pray (and three men prayed at length) and sat to sing these psalms. I could have been in the Hebrides. These psalms go back to John Diodati who translated the Bible into Italian. Some of these psalms had been reprinted by the Waldensians years ago, but now this congregation has given them a new lease of life. I preached to 40 people on the Lord opening Lydia’s heart. Pietro Lorefiche, a missionary with the EMF, who works an hour’s journey away, came to the meeting. We had met at a Banner of Truth Conference in Leicester.

PALERMO AND HOME

Wednesday we went to the capital city of Sicily, Palermo, a dynamic hybrid of Latin, Byzantine and Islamic cultures which stretch back well over two thousand years. In Palermo is the Piazza Marina, one of the main squares, and it is dominated by the medieval building, the Palazzo Chiaramonte. From 1605 until 1782 that was the seat of the Spanish Inquisition. Numerous dissenters were burnt in this square. The Roman Inquisition was determined that the faith of the Bible was not going to be preached in Sicily, nor any other nonconformist attitude. On the prison’s walls are written poignant graffiti, including one that says simply, ‘Pane, pazienza e tempo’. In other words, ‘Bread, patience and time’ had sustained that writer as it was to sustain Mandela in his long African imprisonment 300 years later. Christians would need to add a fourth word to enhance that philosophy of survival I guess, ‘grace,’ or ‘Jesus’.

We were driven by Santo Piccione, a watch-repairer and fine deacon from the Santa Elisabetta church who takes one day off each week to do his diaconal duties. He took us to the hillside town of Monreale which had commanding views of the Bay of Palermo. The town is famous for its Norman Cathedral, one of the wonders of the medieval world, glittering with the gold tesserae of a thousand mosaics. The whole biblical redemptive story is portrayed at two levels right round the walls, creation, the fall, the flood, Lot’s wife, Abraham, and so on to the gospels and then to the book of Acts and Paul being let down in a basket from the walls of Damascus. It is very impressive. Because the designer stuck to the Scriptures Mary has less place in this church than any other we had seen, and so to compensate for this omission there is a side chapel dedicated to her. One can climb onto the roof of this cathedral and it is quite scary. There are few guard rails, and perching on the pinnacle of the roof we had to talk to one another to calm our nerves and slowly make our steep descent down a narrow set of steps. The Cathedral in the middle of Palermo is more austere and is remembered today for a sermon preached by the archbishop of Palermo twenty years ago in which he denounced the Mafia for machine-gunning a general and his wife and some other soldiers. It has been highly unusual for the Roman church to take on the mafia in such a way.

On Wednesday evening we flew back to Britain spiritually refreshed, and ready to get back to the happy centre of our work.

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