From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Italian Protestants emerge from Vatican's shadow
07 Sep 2000 11:20:46
Note #6186 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
Italian Protestants emerge from Vatican's shadow
Waldensians, others prosper by reaching out to immigrants
by Evan Silverstein
ROME, Italy -- The Rev. Luca Negro remembers when things were not as easy
for Italy's small population of Protestants as they are today. He remembers
when living in the nerve center of the Roman Catholic Church often meant
being subjected to blatant discrimination and ridicule.
"It used to be quite difficult," said Negro, 47, the pastor of a Baptist
congregation outside Rome and a member of the Waldensian Church, Italy's
largest mainline Protestant denomination, whose roots date to the 12th
century. "I remember twenty years ago children who went to school were
really discriminated against because they were Protestant."
Negro recalled the story of two young Waldensian schoolgirls who
experienced prejudice first-hand in a classroom in Turin, a city in
northwest Italy that is central to the Waldensian Church, a Reformed partner
of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The two were seated apart from other
students lest they "contaminate" Catholic classmates with their Protestant
"They had to stay in the last row of desks," Negro said of the girls, one
of whom later became his sister in-law. "Between the last row and the other
pupils was an empty row, because the teacher really wanted them to be
separated -- a kind of ghetto for Waldensian children."
That was two decades ago. These days, a more relaxed Vatican and an
unprecedented influx of immigrants has nudged open the doors of acceptance
for Protestant Christianity. More work is needed, Negro said, but relations
between Protestants and Catholics are improving.
"The institution has changed a lot with the Vatican Council II," Negro
said, referring to the meeting of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy that
convened in 1962 and paved the way for more open relations with other faith
groups. "So there is now more openness in the Catholic Church. That
institution has also changed because of immigration. You've got so many
people coming from different countries ... belonging to different
However, life is not perfect for Italy's mainline Protestant churches,
which together have about 60,000 members — about one-tenth of 1 percent of
the country's 57.2 million people. The Waldensian Church is the largest.
Undercurrents of discrimination still exist.
"More or less we could say that it's less difficult to be a Protestant,"
Negro said during an interview in his apartment in Rome, which overlooks St.
Peter's Basilica and the Vatican, the spiritual center of the Roman Catholic
Church. "But we are not really satisfied because the recent tendency now is
to accept those who are not Catholic, but not to really respect their
identity. So the Italian society is still a society in which, when you talk
of churches you never use the plural, you just talk of ‘the church,' and the
church is the Roman Catholic Church."
Negro, who also serves as executive secretary of the Federation of
Protestant Churches in Italy, said he still hears about cases of
discrimination against Protestants, especially in southern Italy where the
Catholic Church is particularly dominant.
One case involved a Protestant woman's plan to marry a Catholic man. The
priest asked the woman to sign an agreement guaranteeing that any children
the couple had together would be educated in accordance with the Catholic
faith, a practice supposedly buried in the past.
"In the year 2000 it's totally nonsense," said Negro, who also is the
director of the Protestant Federation's news agency. "At the national level
there has been an agreement that that is no longer needed."
Indeed, Protestants still face difficulties in Italy, according to Michele
Finseth, a PC(USA) missionary in Rome. Her co-missionary husband, Terry,
works for Confronti, a monthly interfaith magazine published by the
Waldensian Church that focuses on religious pluralism and social
responsibility. Negro was the magazine's first editor.
"The thing that a lot of us from the United States don't understand is that
Italy for the most part needs to be viewed as an outpost," Michele Finseth
said. "People think that because it's modern and it's not considered a Third
World country, everything is just great. But there are struggles, especially
for the Protestant churches."
The Waldensian and Methodist churches in Italy were federated in 1979.
Italian Methodism dates back to British and American missionary efforts in
the mid-19th century. Today there are about 35,000 Waldensian Methodists in
The church, which has offices in Rome and Torre Pellice, hosts a
theological seminary, 150 congregations (from the Alps to Palermo in
Sicily), and about 90 specialized ministries. It is the Waldensian ministry
programs that have made the church and its members more visible in Italy's
Catholic-dominated faith community.
"The thing that amazed me about the Waldensian Church when we started to
learn about them," said Michele Finseth, "is the huge number of schools,
orphanages, old folks homes, hospitals and also retreat centers that they do
as a service to people."
"That tells you what kind of commitment they have to people," Terry Finseth
The list of ministries includes integrating and advocating for immigrants
and Third World refugees. Italy, once viewed as a place to leave, is now
thought of as a location to move to. Hundreds of immigrants from various
countries have flooded the south-central European nation in recent years,
many coming from North Africa, the Middle East and, more recently, Kosovo.
The influx of outsiders has added to the number of Protestants in Italy,
"In some instances the immigrants prefer to form their own churches," he
said. "We don't just want them to have their own churches. We want to be a
‘rainbow' church, inclusive of all multi-cultural and multi-racial
"We have always been in touch with so many other churches," he added. "So
that's part of our being. We are an international church."
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