“Sometimes, when I watch, as I do now, my beloved wife Sonia and our most beloved Matteo as they sleep, I wonder, how can he grow, as a true believer, in a country like Italy, in such relentless spiritual, social, and political decline? These are the thoughts of a new daddy, which become subjects of my prayers.”
Giovanni has been attending for years a historically Protestant church, which takes pride in its ancient roots and relentless struggles. He knew that, over time, this church had become liberal and had made some very serious compromises, but the basic theology still seemed sound, holding (at least in words) to a good seventeenth-century confession. Over the last few years, however, Giovanni’s pastor has become more explicit about his anti-Trinitarian and Arian stand and has blessed the union of homosexual couples.
Giovanni has not been able to bring himself to have his four-year old son baptized with a non-Trinitarian formula. He has appealed to his church council and has been looking for alternatives.
As Americans, we might want to blurt out what seems like an obvious advice, “He should find another church!” The problem for Giovanni is that Reformed confessional churches are rare in Italy. In fact, there is only one fully organized church in Italy that meets the standards set by NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council), and that’s Chiesa Evangelica Riformata Filadelfia (CERF), about 800 miles away from Giovanni.
A First Church Plant
CERF was also born out of frustration with the present situation in Italy and out of a compelling desire to provide believers with a Scriptural place of worship.
It all started in 2001 when two families, deeply moved by the message of a Christian conference hosted in two different cities, realized that true Christianity is much more than what they were taught in their Assembly of God churches. As one of them was providentially offered the chance to move geographically closer to the other, they began to discuss the possibility of forming a nucleus of true believers united by historical confessions. They contacted a friend, Rev. Andrea Ferrari, who was then pastor of an independent Reformed Baptist congregation in Sicily, about 800 miles south, and asked for his counsel and help.
Initially, the two families met weekly to listen to audio sermons and read Reformed material together as Ferrari and a colleague took turns to meet them on a monthly basis. As more people joined the group, they rented a small facility where they could meet for worship. The group was called “Filadelfia,” in reference to Revelation 3:8.
Finally, at the request of the core group, in July 2002 Rev. Ferrari and his family moved to Milan, where he began to serve as their pastor, with the encouragement of several Reformed Baptist pastors from the United States. In December 2002, with the recognition of several Reformed Baptist churches in the USA, the Milan work was constituted as Chiesa Evangelica Filadelfia, confessing the 1689 London Baptist Confession.
A Need for Reformation
A major milestone in the progress of Chiesa Evangelica Filadelfia came in the summer of 2008, when a disciplinary case forced Rev. Ferrari to rethink his church structure. For some years, he had been in touch with Rev. Michael Brown of Christ URC in Santee, CA, and was able to recognize the advantages of a presbyterian form of church government. After much discussion and study of covenant theology, he also became fully convinced of a Reformed position on the doctrine of baptism.
By this time, Rev. Ferrari’s congregation in Milan had grown to about ten families, and he knew that the change from Reformed Baptist to URCNA could not happen lightly. He first took two mature men in his congregation through an in-depth study of Reformed covenant theology, the Three Forms of Unity, and the URCNA Church Order. With their full agreement and support, he introduced the congregation to the same documents. The change was well received by all church members.
“Covenant theology has been of great encouragement to us,” explained elder Mimmo Altobelli. “Its terminology and concepts have been very edifying and have helped us to understand more deeply the work of Christ. The comfort it brought us motivates us to direct our eyes more steadily towards God, who has for us “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give us a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, ESV).
In February 2009, while visiting Christ URC, Rev. Ferrari met with the consistory and asked for oversight and advice. He didn’t want to be an independent pastor and desired full accountability. He also expressed his desire to establish a federation of Reformed churches in Italy, modeled after the URCNA, since no confessional Reformed or Presbyterian denominations exist in that country today.
In June 2009, Rev. Brown traveled to Milan to assess the situation. There, he found a small but vibrant church, ready to learn and grow. He saw children learning the Heidelberg Catechism, families meeting for daily devotions, visitors invited and warmly welcomed, and a tremendous unity among the believers. “It’s easy for us, in our latent consumer mentality, to feel a little detached from a church, thinking, ‘If something goes wrong, I can always go to this or that church,’ but it’s not this way in Milan. You really get a sense of this being a church that is in many ways very alone, so the love they have for each other is really a tremendous thing,” he explained.
As soon as Rev. Brown returned to Santee and gave his report, the consistory of Christ URC made the commitment to respond to Ferrari’s request and help him establish a federation of Reformed churches in Italy.
It was determined that the best course of action was for Rev. Ferrari to be duly ordained as URCNA minister and then sent to Italy by a local church. On January 24, 2010, Rev. Ferrari sustained his colloquium doctum exam, passing with full colors. The following Sunday, he was commissioned by Christ URC in Santee as missionary to Italy.
In April 2010, Rev. Brown traveled again to Milan, where, together with Rev. Ferrari, he participated as an official representative of Christ URC’s consistory in the ordination of two men to the office of elder (Vittorio Calderaro and Domenico “Mimmo” Altobelli), one man to the office of deacon (Giuseppe Ferrari), the baptism of the member children, and the reconstitution of the church as Chiesa Evangelica Riformata ‘Filadelfia.’
On April 25th, he had the pleasure of witnessing the profession of faith of Arnaldo Mazzola, a man who had been in the Roman Catholic Church for sixty years. “He simply showed up one day asking, ‘What is it that you believe?’“ Rev. Brown explained.
Today, CERF is a fully Reformed church with all three offices (minister, elder, and deacon) in leadership. The building is located on a busy street, where many can see it. Almost every week, someone comes in to attend the service or the weekly prayer meetings and to learn more about the church and what it stands for. The visitors are almost equally Roman Catholic and evangelical. Many come from Pentecostal/charismatic churches, a large—and widely fragmented—presence in Italy. In fact, apart from two families, all CERF church members share a Pentecostal background.
Another growing presence in Italy is the immigrant evangelical community. Some have estimated that there are approximately 400,000 evangelical immigrants in Italy. Many of them also come from Pentecostal churches. Presently, CERF has been helping a Nigerian Christian, Matteo, also of Pentecostal background, to gain legal status in Italy. Matteo has narrowly escaped a dangerous situation in his home country and has now been attending CERF regularly for some months.
This summer, Westminster Seminary California student Chris Coleman spent two months as an intern at CERF, preaching weekly from 1 Peter. He also held an English language course for people in the community, who later attended a service and a fellowship meal. Two things particularly impressed Coleman during his stay. First of all, he could not help noticing the stark contrast between the magnificent Roman Catholic churches that fill every town and gather so many tourists without preaching the gospel, and the small renovated computer store in one of Milan’s industrial areas that announces the gospel faithfully week after week.
He also contrasted the highly-polished idea most American tourists have of Italy and the reality one sees every day. Next to the astounding works of art are unassuming alleys and streets where people suffer from the same illnesses, heartaches, and problems we have here. “In the month that I have been here, two young people had to be hospitalized for emergency care, one expectant mother has been very sick and unable to attend worship, one young man is struggling to become a legal Italian citizen, and one mature lady continues to suffer from Alzheimer’s. These are reminders to us, especially Americans, that the people of Italy suffer from the same pains and hurts that we do. Italy, then, is not merely a land of museums, churches and paintings, but it is a land of people who need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
Unlike most evangelical churches in Italy, which rely on fancy programs of evangelization, CERF devotes all its time to the preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, catechism, and family visitations. The weekly catechism class includes children and parents together. “We are encouraged by the fruits we see in our small church, and first of all in ourselves,” Altobelli said.
The financial needs are still great. Rev. Ferrari’s family is largely sustained by the support of Reformed churches and individuals in the United States. Besides, the facility where CERF meets is in desperate need of renovation. They need first of all a foyer to avoid constant traffic in and out of the building during the service. They need better windows to keep out the cold in winter and the heat in summer. They also need classrooms for catechism classes.
Rev. Brown, who was recently appointed as chairman of a study group to develop a proposed set of federational mission policies and guidelines, refers to the URCNA church order in appealing for help: “The church’s missionary task is to preach the Word of God to the unconverted. When this task is to be performed beyond the field of an organized church, it is to be carried out by ministers of the Word set apart to this labor, who are called, supported and supervised by their consistories. The churches should assist each other in the support of their missionaries.” (art. 47).
“I hope that URCNA churches will assist us in the support of Rev. Ferrari, a URCNA missionary,” he continued. “If we truly believe that the Great Commission is primarily fulfilled through the establishment of true churches, to whom the keys of the kingdom have been given, then we are compelled to seize this opportunity that the Lord has given us in Italy.”
The need is great. Of Italy’s sixty million citizens, fifty-eight million were baptized into the Roman Church. Few churches in Italy adhere to a historical confession and to the three marks of a true church (preaching of the gospel, administration of sacraments, and church discipline). In this dark landscape, CERF continues to preach and teach faithfully, week after week, trusting that the Lord will help them to plant more churches to meet Italy’s dire need.
As Giovanni concluded in his letter, “Many of us are praying incessantly to be nourished and strengthened by the Word of the Lord as it is rightly taught and by the good doctrine that it generates. The hearts of many are still certain that the Lord will not abandon His people—even when all appearances seem to belie the hope that is within us.”
(The names of Giovanni and his family have been modified to protect his privacy.)
Learn more about Rev. Ferrari’s work at www.reformationitaly.org
Mrs. Simonetta Carr was born in Italy and is a member at Christ United Reformed Church, Santee, CA. She is currently writing a series titled Christian Biographies for Young Readers, published by Reformation Heritage Books. This series include personalities such as Augustine, John Calvin, and John Owen.