No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, that is a picture of Martin Luther posted on the right in front of a Catholic Church in Italy in remembrance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Don’t believe me? Here is a closer look.
As if one picture of Luther were not enough, a nearby Church thought it necessary to post five!
Not only is this posting of Luther’s picture in front of the Catholic Church in Italy a reason to celebrate, but it also holds a special significance for me in that my name is printed on it as well. Why? Because the Catholic Church in the community where I live has asked me to participate in a conference that will be open to the public in which I will have the opportunity to discuss the significance of the Reformation past, present, and future with Catholic priest and eminent professor of theology and history Don Ermis Segatti. I have participated in something like this in the past, and I am very much looking forward to another occasion in which I will be able to speak on the continuing relevance of the Reformation in a public forum.
The reason why this is exciting for me is because, as it is well known, the Reformation had little to no lasting impact in Italy, largely due to its proximity to the heart of Catholicism in Rome. Five hundred years ago, the Catholic Church succeeded in stamping out the majority of the Protestant incursions into the Italian peninsula. Since that time, the Church in Italy, to say nothing of the wider culture, has borne the indelible imprint of the countermeasures adopted against the Protestant faith and immortalized in the decrees of the Council of Trent.
Times are changing, however, as evidenced by the fact that a local Catholic Church here in Italy is commemorating the start of the Reformation, posting Luther’s next to its main entrance. Even the pope has recently expressed a measured amount of respect for Luther in his good intentions to bring necessary reform to the Church. Among the various explanations for why this may be occurring, it might be helpful to know that the Catholic Church in Italy has suffered, and continues to suffer, a severe hemorrhaging of its faithful. The number of Italians still claiming to be Catholic has dropped dramatically in the last few years and has reached an unprecedent low. In his book Can We Save the Catholic Church?, Catholic priest and theologian Hans Küng details this steady exodus of Italians away from their inherited faith when he writes:
It has become increasingly clear that the number of people who consider the Church necessary – or even useful – has continually decreased since the peak of public approval at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), and under Benedict XVI it dropped to an all-time low. The results of significant surveys conducted in a number of Western countries show that this decline is not a development restricted to the ‘recalcitrant’ German-speaking countries.
In Italy, the land of the pope, less than half of the population still consider themselves to be Catholic, 20 per cent less than in 2004 (IARD RPS). This is despite the fact that more than 80 per cent consider religion to be important, a drop of only 8 per cent compared to six years previously. But many people want to have nothing more to do with the Church as an institution. Only 46 per cent still have confidence in the pope; six years ago the number stood at 60 per cent.
Since Küng wrote these words back in 2013, nothing seems to have stemmed the tide of Italians leaving the Catholic Church. A new article published last year documents that:
…a record number of Italian Catholics are also thought to have defected from the Church in 2015, according to figures published in January by the Italian Union of Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists (URR), an organization that helps Catholics abjure their religion by providing them with forms that can be downloaded online and sent to their local parish. Some 47,726 forms were downloaded in 2015, beating the previous high of 45,797 set in 2012, while the not-so-popular Pope Benedict was still at the helm of the Catholic Church. [Full article here]
Not only are the Italian faithful disillusioned over the condition of their Church, but trouble is also brewing in the highest echelons of the Roman hierarchy. On March 2, 2017, CSN News reported the following:
According to a report in The London Times and best selling Catholic author and journalist Antonio Socci, about 12 cardinals who have supported Pope Francis since his election in March 2013 now fear that his controversial reforms may cause a schism in the Church, and so they hope to pressure the Pope to resign.
“A large part of the cardinals who voted for him is very worried and the curia … that organized his election and has accompanied him thus far, without ever disassociating itself from him, is cultivating the idea of a moral suasion to convince him to retire,” reported Socci in the Italian newspaper Libero, as quoted in The London Times of March 2.
The cardinals who want Pope Francis to resign are among the liberal prelates who backed Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) four years ago, said Socci, and they would like to replace him with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.
“Four years after Benedict XVI’s renunciation and Bergoglio’s arrival on the scene, the situation of the Catholic church has become explosive, perhaps really on the edge of a schism, which could be even more disastrous than Luther’s…” said Socci. [Full article here]
Socci is manifestly not an admirer of Martin Luther, whom he holds to be responsable for a “disastrous” schism. Nevertheless, he fears that the Catholic Church is on the verge of a schism potentially more disastrous than anything Luther provoked, and this time the instigator is none other than the pope himself.
I do not write this as one who sits in judgment over the Catholic Church. I strongly disagree with Socci’s view of Luther and of the Reformation in general, but that is really beside the point that I want to make, which is this: the Church in Italy needs gospel renewal! It is no mere Protestant polemic to acknowledge the fact that the Catholic Church, at least the part of it that lies closest to its center, is sick and bleeding out. Everyone in Italy knows this. According to Hans Küng, there is no denying “debilitating and potentially terminal illness from which the Church is presently suffering” . Although I am sure that many Catholic apologists elsewhere will object, it is a fact that most Italian Catholics who live closest to Rome, like Antonio Socci, are gravely concerned over the languishing health of their Church and are fearing the worst. It is no unkindness to call something what it is.
It is no human strategy or solution that can bring healing to the fatal wound of Italian Christianity, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ which alone is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). To say that the increasing numbers of Italians turning their backs on their Church, and for that reason on Christ as well, need the gospel is simply to say that they need others who will share the gospel with them. As Paul argued in Romans 10, how will they hear unless they are told, and how will they be told unless others are sent to them?
All this to say, Italy needs missionaries. Not necessarily missionaries of the traditional “jungles-of-Africa” variety, but reformissionaries who are committed to bringing gospel renewal and revival to a land increasingly devoid of Christianity. Even Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged this when he wrote:
…we also sadly know of some areas that have almost completely abandoned the Christian religion, where the light of the faith is entrusted to the witness of small communities: these lands, which need a renewed first proclamation of the Gospel, seem particularly resistant to many aspects of the Christian message. This variety of situations demands careful discernment; to speak of a “new evangelization” does not in fact mean that a single formula should be developed that would hold the same for all circumstances. And yet it is not difficult to see that what all the Churches living in traditionally Christian territories need is a renewed missionary impulse, an expression of a new, generous openness to the gift of grace. [Full text here]
Indeed, the contemporary situation and need of Italy is not unlike that which John Calvin described in the 16th century:
…the question is not whether the Church suffers from many and grievous diseases, for this is admitted even by all moderate judges; but whether the diseases are of a kind whose cure admits of no longer delay, so that it is neither useful nor proper to wait upon too slow remedies…. We maintain to start with that, when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and on whose ministry our churches are founded and built, those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete.
This is why I am in Italy. I long to hold forth the torch taken up by Luther five hundred years ago and play some small part in sparking true gospel reformation across the land that has always been the center of Roman Catholicism. For the last five hundred years, the light of the gospel has not been permitted to shine with its refulgent glory throughout the peninsula. Up until the 20th century access to the Bible was extremely limited in Italy, and not until Vatican II was full blessing given to the faithful to read it for themselves. For this reason, the Bible has been dubbed “‘the absent book'” in the history and culture of modern Italy”, and the significance of this cannot be overstated. Centuries of suppression have ingrained within the Italian psyche a reticence, if not downright opposition, to reading the Bible. We can only pray that God would mightily work to change this tragic reality. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. If they will not hear, how will they have faith?
So I would ask that you would pray for me in my work here in Italy, and specifically as I prepare for this upcoming conference on the Reformation. Might God be pleased to use the current crisis in the Catholic Church to open wide its door that for five hundred years has remained bolted shut against the great truths rediscovered during the Reformation? I don’t know, that is in his hands. For my part, I just hope to maybe push it open a crack! If nothing else, I would at least celebrate the small victory that is the local Catholic Church’s decision to post pictures of Martin Luther just outside its doors and host a public event commemorating his work. Perhaps now is the time to start proclaiming again the great Reformation motto: Post Tenebras Lux! After Darkness Light!
 Hans Küng, Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013), p.45
 Ibid., p.1.
 John Calvin, Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), pp.185-186.