ROME, Italy — On the outskirts of Rome along the ancient Catholic pilgrim route known as the Via Francigena and not far from a giant shopping center featuring a massive IKEA and the French do-it-yourself Mecca called Leroy Merlin, cranes are hoisting giant spires onto the top of a Baroque-revival-style church. But unlike most of the religious edifices erected in Catholic Rome, this Roman temple is being built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) of Italy to accommodate a congregation that has grown from 9,000 to nearly 30,000 followers in less than 30 years.
The Rome Temple Complex of the LDS sits on 15 acres and will feature lush gardens, and a 40,000-square-foot temple with floor and ceiling designs to mimic Michelangelo’s Capitoline Hill plaza overlooking the Roman forum. Marble from Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Brazil is being used to decorate the interior and exterior spaces. The grounds will also include a stake center meeting house (a stake being roughly similar to a Catholic diocese), a visitor center, a family history library and a special Mormon-only hotel for workers and worshippers.
The temple, which is expected to be inaugurated sometime next year, is the 12th temple built in Europe and the first ever in Italy, and it is one of 15 new temples currently being built worldwide by the growing Mormon church. Organizers say that while it is under construction the Roman temple will be open briefly to the public for guided tours to help encourage understanding, then it will be closed to all but church members except under special circumstances.
The temple is serving a demand by Italian Mormons, according to local Rome Stake President Massimo De Feo, who says worshippers currently travel to the nearest temple in Bern, Switzerland, if they wish to do temple work which is an integral component of Mormon worship. The cost of the temple is a tightly held secret. “We have paid for it out of our pocket, with no help from Italy,” LDS Rome spokesman Alessandro Dini Ciacci says. “We don’t divulge the specific costs of our operations.”
Italy has 103 Latter-day Saints congregations under 10 stakes, divided into missions based in Milan and Rome, with the highest concentration in the north of Italy, where 53 percent of Mormons live, compared to 29 percent in southern Italy and 18 percent in the central regions. Sicily alone has 3,052 members of the church; the region around Rome has 2,117, according to the LDS Italy archives. There are more female Mormons (53 percent) than men (47 percent) in the country. According to De Feo, the Italy church has seen a surge in requests for baptisms for the living and the dead, and for celestial marriage ceremonies and family sealing ceremonies which officially bind couples or families together for eternity once the temple is ready. He also predicts that many Italians who have moved away because of inadequate ways to practice their faith will move back now that there is a temple in Italy.
The growth of the LDS church in Italy may be moving fast, but not without opposition. Shortly after the first Mormons were baptized in Italy in 1850, the Catholic Church demanded that members of the congregation emigrate to Salt Lake City. The Italian government refused to allow the LDS church to formally gather until 1951. By 1964, there were just 230 members who were allowed to do missionary work in the country, and it took until July 30, 2012, for Italy’s government to finally legally recognize LDS as a religion in Italy and full “partner of the state.”
According to Massimo De Feo, president of the Rome stake, the construction of the temple is nothing short of a miracle, not least of because of the way the project, which will be the largest in Europe, has raised eyebrows in Catholic circles.
“Certainly the Mormon Church is very rich and they have substantial resources that come from the United States,” said Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, emeritus president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and a close adviser to the last three popes, at a recent public forum on interreligious dialogue. “It is not a sin to have economic resources, but for an ecumenism, this new Mormon center, the largest in Europe, will certainly be a problem.”
“The good news is certainly the fact that the construction of this new temple has created new jobs, and this is a good that comes from their wealth,” said Sgreccia. “As for ecumenism, dialogue and the search for unity among all Christians, their presence in Rome is not necessarily an uplifting factor. We shall wait and see.”
Mormons aren’t dangerous to the Catholic faith, says Monsignor Enrico Feroci, head of Rome’s Caritas. “Everyone has the right to make their own choices of faith and take the necessary measures, from building their headquarters to professsing their faith,” he says. “But for Catholics, this does not mean renouncing its principles and pillars upon which rests the 2,000 years from their faith in Christ, Son of God, who died and rose again for the salvation of humanity. I have a lot of respect for Mormons in Rome, but they certainly do not share the Gospel with us because their concepts and the way they operate in society differ so greatly to Catholics.”
The Mormon religion is the 10th-largest in Italy after Catholicism, well behind Islam (the fourth after Catholicism) and Judaism (the sixth-largest), but it is the fastest growing, and the construction of the new house of worship will surely draw many whose faith guides them to live close to a temple. “This is a day of thanksgiving,” De Feo said when Thomas S. Monson, the head of the universal church, broke ground in Rome in 2010. “I think this is the most beautiful temple in the world.”