Chiesa Evangelica Mennonita Italiana
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|Italian Mennonite Church|
Google Maps, 2014.
Number of Congregations
Chiesa Evangelica Mennonita Italiana (The Italian Mennonite Church) was established as an official member of Mennonite World Conference in 1981. However, the Mennonite presence in Italy reaches back to the post-World War II era. The Italian Mennonite Church began primarily through Virginia Mennonite Conference missions and outreach.
Unlike many of the Mennonite mission efforts in Europe, the Italian Mennonite Church was not born of direct planning or missionary strategies (Baecher 238). Instead, the Virginia Board of Missions and Charities started its work in Italy as a result of correspondence and the ensuing relationships that formed. After World War II, an Italian woman named Franca Ceraulo saw an address on a relief package sent by Mennonites. She began corresponding with a few Virginia Mennonites about the Anabaptist belief (Yoder). In 1949, Lewis Martin and Jason Weaver traveled in Europe to explore the possibilities for mission work and relief efforts by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). By the suggestion of Ceraulo’s friends in Virginia, they visited Ceraulo, who was ready to be baptized (Yoder). Through Ceraulo’s leadership and testimony, a Mennonite congregation began to emerge in Italy (Eberly).
The mission in Sicily, established and administered by the Virginia Board of Missions and Charities, was one of eight Mennonite missions established in Europe during 1949 and 1953 (Baecher 237). Soon after the Ceraulo’s baptism, the first Mennonite church in Italy, Centro Agape, was established (Baecher). Throughout the church’s growth, the Virginia Mennonite Conference members have maintained a presence as missionaries, church planters, and pastors.
|.....1949.....||Lewis Martin and Jason Weaver visit Sicily and baptize Franca Ceraulo.
Centro Agape, the first Mennonite church, is born.
|1950||Churches in Virginia provide material aid to Sicily for Franca Ceraulo to distribute.
People from the Virginia Mennonite Church visit Palermo and Sicily to teach and baptize. Franca Ceraulo is appointed the director for missionary work in Palermo.
|1954||The translation and printing of Mennonite publications to Italian begins.|
|1957||Contact is established with a group in the Abruzzo area, led by Amacarelli, who wants to join the Mennonite church.
A radio program is begun.
|1960||A committee forms between Mennonite Board of Missions and Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions to coordinate mission work in Italy.
In April, the first Italian Mennonite Conference is held at Palermo, Sicily.
|1962||Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions assumes full responsibility for work in Italy.|
|1964||The relationship with Amacarelli in Abruzzo ends.|
|1965||Francesco Picone is baptized.|
|1967||Literature work ends in Florence.|
|1969||Franca Ceraulo dies.|
|1972||A charismatic member of the church creates confusion and division. The church is reduced to a small, unified group after complete reorganization, and a covenant of membership in the Mennonite Church is signed.|
|1974||Francesco Picone is ordained.|
|1975||The Palermo Church takes charge of their own expenses.|
|1976||Mennonite agencies send help after an earthquake strikes in Friuli (Eberly).
A gospel team of young Mennonites from Virginia evangelizes on the street in Palermo and Altofonte. The leaders decide to organize an association to manage the legal side of church lie, and La Chiesa Evangelica Mennonite Italiana (CEMI) is created.
|1978||The Palermo church, Centro Agape, outgrows its basement meeting place, and new grounds are purchased.|
|1979||A new church in Palermo is dedicated.|
|1980||A group of dissidents leaves the church.
The radio broadcasts are suspended.
|1981||A severe earthquake in the Naples area prompts relief efforts and rebuilding projects from the churches in Sicily as well as MCC and the European Mennonites.
The Italian Mennonite Church becomes an official member of Mennonite World Conference.
|1983||A successful tent evangelism effort occurs in Sicily.|
|1987||The Sicilian churches begin the indigenization process as Francesco and Martha Picone become pastors at Centro Agape and Francesco and Helen Sapienza take charge of a young church at Cinisi.
Work begins in the San Lorenzo district of Palermo.
|1988||Work begins in the Bari region.|
|1993||A new church, Shalom, emerges in eastern Palermo.|
|1995||The Ministerial Council sets up a fund to assist church leaders.|
|1999||The Italian Mennonite Church celebrates 50 years.
A history of the Italian Mennonite Church, New Awakenings in an Ancient Land, is published. A missions team is sent to Lushnje, Albania, in a joint project with Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions.
|2001||The last missionaries leave Sicily and the Sicilian churches are entirely in the hands of Italian leaders (Blosser).|
|2014||Italian leadership takes charge of the church at Bari (Blosser).|
The Mennonite community in Italy is quite small, with only about 250 members (Mennonite World Conference). There are currently five churches (Mennonite World Conference). Overall, Evangelicals make up about 1% of the Italian population (Blosser). Within the Evangelical population, there are Pentecostal and non-Pentescotal groups (Blosser). The Mennonites, now mostly first or second generation members, represent a very small minority of the non-Pentecostal Evangelicals (Blosser).
The Italian Mennonites relate the other non-Pentecostal Evangelical groups, such as the Swiss missionary groups (Unione Chiese Bibliche Cristiane) and Church of the Brethren in Italy (Blosser). These non-Pentecostal Evangelical groups tend to share similar beliefs (Blosser). Adult baptism is the defining factor that most Evangelicals adhere to, and generally more emphasis is placed upon being Evangelical rather than being Mennonite (Blosser). Scripture has a high view among Italian Mennonites (Blosser). The Italian Mennonite Church has discussed peace and justice, but these themes have not played a dominant role thus far (Blosser).
The Anabaptist-Mennonite presence in Europe has been intensely influenced by the difference national and political contexts, and has had to develop unique responses to historical challenges as a result (Baecher, ix). A growing challenge for European churches in the twenty-first century, including Mennonite churches, is shaping the retelling and sharing of the gospel for a multicultural, postmodern context (Baecher 49). This is especially important in the case of the small size of the Italian Mennonite Church.
The Italian Mennonite Church has planted churches in two areas: Sicily and the Bari region. The Sicilian region has been in Italian control since 2001, when the last VMM missionaries left Sicily (Blosser). From 2001 to 2014, VMM missionaries focused on the Bari region in the hopes of planting a church there (Blosser). After numerous setbacks and many conflicts, a small Mennonite community has formed in Bari. As of January 2015, the Bari church will in the hands of Italians (Picone). One of the most challenging facets of the larger Evangelical church is its leadership (Blosser). Since very few pastors have seminary training, there are few models of servant leadership (Blosser). However, there are periodic Bible school classes that are offered in various locations. Power struggles, separations, and divisions are frequent in the Italian Mennonite Church (Blosser).
The job crisis in Italy, where unemployment is 35 percent among those between the ages of 18 and 35, creates an additional challenge for pastoral leadership (Blosser). Part-time work is almost non-existent. Pastors either have an additional secular job for about 60 hours a week and don’t have adequate time to pastor, or they cannot find a job at all and are only given a gift for their work (Blosser).
Church growth in Italy is slow, but its leaders hope that the Mennonite church will continue to grow. Some of the zeal of the newfound faith in the first generation of believers has waned, but the Italian Mennonite Church is in the process of stabilizing its church in the second generation of believers (Blosser). One of the church’s main goals is to prepare the young generation to assume more responsibility and prepare them for future ministry (Picone). The leaders hope to see spiritural renewal in the churches at Capaci and Termine Imeresi (Picone). In addition, the church wants to continue to develop and activate a discipleship school and spiritual growth seminars (Picone).
The leaders have a vision of planting new churches and sending out Italian missionaries (Picone). The church hopes that the current church planting projects led by Giovanni Greco in parts of the Bari region will be successful (Picone).
Francesco Picone comes from one of the founding families of the Mennonite church in the early 1950s. He has served as the President of the Italian Mennonite Church and has been involved in its leadership since the 1980s. Besides Francesco, there are 3 other Italian pastors and 3 elders working in the Mennonite churches in Sicily.
Giovanni Greco is a Mennonite pastor who originally came form the Brethren Church. He works in church planting and leadership development in the Molise and Abbruzzo regions north of Bari, Italy. As of January 2015, there will be one American missionary family associated with VMM working with Giovanni on this church planting project.
Baecher, Claude, John Allen Lapp, and C. Arnold Snyder. Testing Faith and Tradition: Global Mennonite History Series: Europe. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2006. Print. This book documents Anabaptist history in Europe by country and region, especially during the period from 1850 to the present. It explores the political, economic, social, and religious contexts of the Anabaptist-Mennonite churches in Europe.
Blosser, Janet. Personal interview. 25 Nov. 2014. Janet Blosser is the Mediterranean Director for Virginia Mennonite Missions. She was a missionary in Italy for 15 years, returning to the United States in 1997, and presently works with Italy and other areas of the Mediterranean.
Eberly, Eva M. "Chiesa Evangelica Mennonita Italiana (Italian Mennonite Church)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. June 2010. Web. 4 Jul 2014.
This article from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online was written by Eva Eberly, a Mennonite missionary in Italy from 1969 to 1987. It discusses the beginnings of the Italian Mennonite Church and explores the slow but steady expansion of the Mennonite faith in Italy.
Mennonite World Conference. "World Directory: Europe." Web. 10 Dec. 2014. The Mennonite World Conference website provides information about the demographics of Mennonite-related churches, including the Italian Mennonite Church.
Picone, Francesco, Tony Ceraulo, Marilena Ceraulo, and Helen Sapienza. New Awakenings in an Ancient Land. Palermo, Italy: Centro Agape, 1999. Print. This book details the history of the Italian Mennonite Church, providing an in-depth chronological narrative of the church’s development. The authors published this book with the desire to document the history of the Italian Mennonite Church and make it known to others. Picone, Francesco and Martha. Personal interview. 30 Nov. 2014.
Francesco Picone, who wrote the book, is one of the prominent leaders in the Italian Church, which he joined in 1965. He has been a church leader since the late 1970s. Martha Picone (nee Hartzler), originally from the United States, volunteered in the Italian Mennonite Church in 1972, and married Francesco in 1976. He married Martha (nee Hartzler), from Virginia, in 1976.
Yoder, Janet. Personal interview. 8 Dec. 2014. Janet Yoder, from Harrisonburg, Virginia, was a member of a Mennonite Church in Virginia during the first contact between the Virginia Mennonites and the first Italian Mennonite, Franca Ceraulo. Yoder recalls the origin story of the Italian Mennonite Church and the stories of many Mennonite missionaries who went to Italy.