A collective gasp and hushed murmurs rippled through the LDS Conference Center, but for Pietra Wall and Salvatore "Sal" Velluto, the reaction to LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson's announcement last Saturday was less contained and more personal. The two Italian immigrants and converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints heard the news of a planned Rome temple as an answer to their prayers.
Even though she doesn't play the lottery, Wall, 46, said listening in her Layton living room to Monson name the five new temple locations was like waiting for the right number to be called. She held her breath and then, finally, with Rome being mentioned last, her tears began to fall. For Velluto and his family, sitting in West Jordan around their television, the response was more of an eruption.
"We screamed," Velluto, 52, said, still sounding giddy several days later. "It looked like someone scored a goal at a soccer game," an image that's easy to imagine, "especially if you know how passionate Italians are about soccer."
The Rome temple will be the 12th in Europe and the first in the Mediterranean region. The location choice, even though long-prayed for by some, surprised others.
"I'm not too surprised in the sense that there seems to be a trend toward temple building. But one of the things that struck me is that from a historical perspective, Italy has been one of the least successful missions," said Michael Homer, a Salt Lake City attorney who in the early 1970s served his LDS Church mission in Italy and has done extensive research on and writing about the country.
Brigham Young sent a small band of missionaries in 1849 to Italy, where they worked under the direction of Lorenzo Snow - then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later the LDS Church's fifth president, according to a 2006 article Homer wrote for Nova Religio:
The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. There Snow and the others were free to proselytize to Waldensians, a minority group of Protestants who broke off from the Catholic church in the 12th century, but were considered personae non gratae in Catholic cities. Only one Italian Catholic converted to Mormonism in the 19th century, and the 171 converts the church did get were all Waldensians, wrote Homer, who is a descendent of Waldensian converts.
By 1867, he wrote, Brigham Young stopped dispatching missionaries to Italy, and over the next 100 years, efforts there were sporadic at best and initially focused on those living in the Waldensian valleys.
Rumors about a potential LDS temple in Italy are nothing new, Homer added. They date back to the mid-1800s, he wrote, when Catholic journalists began issuing warnings in L'Armonia, the Torino newspaper.
Today, in the aftermath of World War II and the 1960s Vatican II - which both helped throw doors open for dialogue and increased religious liberties - there are three LDS missions in Italy and more than 22,000 practicing Mormons. Those numbers pale compared with other conversion efforts that leave Italian Catholics "more concerned," said Homer, who estimates there are as many as half-a-million Jehovah's Witnesses and a comparable number of Pentecostals in Italy today.
In September 2000, The Salt Lake Tribune reported on LDS Church efforts to become a state-sponsored church, or "concordate," which would give the church a slice of taxpayer dollars - a luxury already afforded to minority groups including Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Jews, Baptists, Waldensians and others. The process, however, is a slow one, and it wasn't until April 2007 that the then-prime minister signed off on this for the LDS Church, explained Massimo Introvigne, the director of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Torino.
But a prime minister's signature isn't the last step; such efforts require ratification by the parliament. So just as the LDS Church waits, so do plenty of other religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses, The Apostolic Church, Hindus and Eastern Orthodox churches. The reason for the hold-up, he added, is Islam. While all religious groups are entitled to liberties and tax exemption, Introvigne said ratification discussions for all faiths haven't been scheduled due to religious bigotry by voters, in a country that now has 1 million Muslims, and an "unwillingness of politicians to settle the question of Islam."
When it comes to prejudice against Mormons, Introvigne said an LDS temple in Italy may increase understanding of the faith, which is important given that "most Italians have never met a real live Mormon." The country's media coverage of Mitt Romney's run for the Republican presidential nomination revealed that Italians have a long way to go, he explained in a phone interview. In 47.3 percent of the articles, polygamy was mentioned, and in only 11.5 percent of the stories did writers make clear that the practice is prohibited in the church.
By building in Italy, exposure will increase, as will opportunities for people to learn and ask questions. And for the Mormons living in Italy, who've had to travel to Bern, Switzerland, to perform temple sacraments, the construction will increase their ability to do temple work and make them feel more recognized by their Salt Lake City brethren, he said.
"I don't have the words to express the amazing difference it's going to make," offered Layton's Wall, who said she and her husband had to travel to the Swiss temple to get sealed for eternity.
In a place such as Rome, where ancient architecture, as well as historical and artistic magnificence, dots the landscape, plenty of people wonder how a LDS temple can possibly fit in without offending. "That's going to be quite a challenge," West Jordan's Velluto said with a laugh, before pointing out that the architecture of the Salt Lake City temple is somewhat inspired by the Milan Cathedral.
So in a way, he suggested, this is a case of matters coming full circle. That sentiment also resonated with Monsignor M. Francis Mannion of Holladay's St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Parish.
"In the 1870s, the Catholic church built a cathedral in Salt Lake City, which is the Vatican of Mormonism. So it seems fair enough, at this point in history, that the Mormon church would build a temple in Rome."