Thursday, March 15, 2012
Americans at a lively Italian church
Tuesday, March 13
From our Padova friends Steve and Patti, we are aware of a concert by an American university choir scheduled for tonight, so we lock our bikes at the San Salvatore station and take an 80-minute train trip to Firenze. The group is from Valley Forge Christian College in Pennsylvania, and it is performing at an Italian protestant church, a rarity in Italy.
We arrive promptly at 8 p.m., just as the event starts, and the place is packed, so much so that the foyer behind the meeting room is also full. Ushers immediately recognize us as visitors to the church, though, and we are urged to go inside and stand in the narrow space between the wall and the wooden pews. The evening is about 80 percent concert and 20 percent church service, so the congregation sings a couple of its own songs, and then the Italian pastor speaks for a few minutes and leads the congregation in prayer before introducing the choir.
I estimate there are nearly 400 people here tonight, and I am told that this church is typically bursting at the seams every Sunday. So although protestant churches are uncommon here, this one is doing uncommonly well. I do think that in America, though, the fire inspectors would have something to say about how tightly they pack people in.
This is an Italian Assemblies of God church, which is a denomination separate from American Assemblies of God, although they sometimes work together on projects, as they are with this concert. The worship at this church is lively, which is normal in AG churches everywhere. After the pastor prays, everyone else does too, all at the same time, with enthusiasm and obvious emotion. I can’t help but wonder why churches like this are not more common in Italy, as Italians are noted for being expressive, passionate people who openly display their feelings. It is not unusual to hear Italians singing as they work, and Italian soccer fans are known worldwide for their rabid and insane public behavior. So why are Italians so serious and sedate in church; why aren’t demonstrative churches like this more popular?
OK, I realize I am asking a question that is too profound to answer simply. I’m sure the reasons are numerous and complex, so I’m not expecting a simple answer. Afterwards I do talk to Randy and Diane, who lead International Christian Fellowship in Firenze, and they explain one major reason: The Catholic Church teaches that all other churches are cults to be avoided under threat of damnation. In fact, I read online that in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI released a document that says Orthodox churches are defective and that other Christian denominations are not true churches. He maintains that protestant churches are merely ecclesial communities and do not have the “means of salvation.” Diane explains that her members encounter Catholics who have “been taught to cover their ears and run” when protestants to talk about their beliefs.
Well, I don’t want to provoke an argument about religion, so I’ll return to the story. The choir sings almost entirely in English, but the director introduces each song with an explanation of the content, and his words are translated into Italian. The acoustics are excellent and so is the choir. Audience members seem very attentive and appreciative, with many hand-held video cameras recording much of the entire event. The vice president of the college has accompanied the choir, and he gives a 20-minute sermon, all translated into Italian.
Afterwards several people greet us and introduce themselves, and we are given information about the church. Because the trains back to San Salvatore don’t run this late, we are staying overnight with Randy and Diane, but now they explain that they must go to a dinner with the choir. Would we mind staying too? Well, not if there’s dinner involved, of course, since all we brought with us were sandwiches, fruit and cookies, which we ate mid-afternoon.
The dinner has been prepared by members of the church, and it is a scrumptious four-course Italian feast. We have the opportunity to sit with members of the choir and also members of the church, and we feel useful because we can help translate conversations, and we are also able to give the choir members some tips about Italian life. Randy and Diane live about 45 minutes away, so we are among the first to leave. It is around 11:30 p.m. and nobody else is getting up yet, typical of Italian events, but this staying up past midnight is not commonplace for us old fogey Americans, so we are quite ready to hit the sack.