ROME — The world’s focus turned to the Catholic Church last month, when Catholics filled St. Peter's Square to witness Pope Francis’ inauguration. But just a few miles away, Italians are building a tribute to a different sect.
Italy, known for its strong Catholic presence, is also home to nearly 25,000 Mormons. And just eight miles from the Vatican, a Mormon temple is being built—the first in the city, the first in Italy, and the first in the Mediterranean region.
Italian Mormons already gather at numerous chapels for Sunday worship, but a temple is something different. “It’s literally heaven on earth,” said Clay Lacey, a 20-year-old Mormon from California.
Like many Mormons his age, Lacey is a missionary, and he has been in Italy for almost two years. He said that according to Mormon belief, a temple is a link between earth and the afterlife. “The whole point of the temples is to seal us for eternity with our families, to really connect us, because one thing that’s inevitable in life is death,” he said. ”The temple kind of gives us an eternal perspective of things.”
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The Mormon temple in Rome will be the twelfth in Europe. It will be 40,000 square feet, with an exterior of white granite. Right now, slabs of the granite stone are being attached to a still rising frame.
Lacy said when it’s done, he hopes the temple will clear up confusion Italians have about his faith. “There are a lot of wrong ideas that Italians have about our church. They think the Mormons run around with long beards, and still live, you know, back in the 1600s, or the 1700s,” he said.
There have been Mormons in Italy since the 1850s, but due to local opposition, they were banned from proselytizing until 1965. Even more significantly, the Italian government only recognized Mormonism as an official religion last year.
For Italian Mormons like Alessandro Dini Ciacci, the new temple is a milestone. “To me, as a Mormon living in Rome, this is a dream come true,” said Ciacci, who is the director of public affairs for the Mormon Church in Rome, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Ciacci was raised in a Catholic family in the south of Italy and he converted to Mormonism when he was 18. He said that right now, to worship in a temple, he has to drive or fly to the nearest one — in Bern, Switzerland.
“Having a temple here, close by, it means that if I’m feeling down, if I need answers, if I just want to go worship my Lord, or perform ordinances for my family or my ancestors, I can just drive there in less than an hour,” he said.
And the city of Rome has a deep religious significance to Mormons, who adhere to the Bible, as well as to the Book of Mormon.
“How can you imagine the Church of Jesus Christ without having the temple in the city where Apostle Paul and Apostle Peter, they came to preach the Gospel in the early days?” asked Raimondo Castellani, the national director of public affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Italy.
Castellani said he thinks the temple site might even become a destination for each tourist coming to Rome.
Fausto D’Apuzzo, a 26-year-old Italian who grew up Mormon, agrees that a temple in Rome is significant. Since he was twelve, he would take a bus every summer to the temple in Bern — a trip that took 15 hours. He said a new temple near the center of Catholicism will be a point of pride for Mormons.
“Strong Italian Catholics sometimes are not very open to other religions,” he said. “And maybe there will be rumors about some bad things happening in the temple, but I’m hoping that most of the people will actually get to know the truth, what we are, and what we do.”
D’Apuzzo said many of his friends don’t know anything about Mormonism but that he could talk about his church forever. He said that’s because the church has always been the center of his life. Now he jokes that he and his Canadian girlfriend will be the first couple to get married in the new temple when it is completed in 2014.
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