“Grace Alone” – a Sicilian report
People gathered from all over Sicily, Italy, and beyond for the opening of the new church premises of Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica “Sola Grazia” in Caltanissetta, in the heart of Sicily. The building itself is beautiful, though it remains – in some of its details – a work in progress. Every major part of the whole is intended to communicate something of the truth of the church and its biblical convictions.
You enter the building as you reach the seventh step – hints of a Sabbath rest. The visitor walks through four ‘Gospel’ pillars into an octagonal meeting room, reminding us that the Lord Jesus met with his people on the day of resurrection, and eight days afterward. You come in from the west, leaving the darkness behind you. On the eastern side of the church, the pulpit is the focal point, and there the light of God’s Word is shining. Behind the pulpit are two windows, suggesting the Old and the New Testaments. Opposite the pulpit are three windows in front of one window. The light shining through the one also beams through the three, giving at least an inkling of the God whom we worship. On each side of the main hall are a further twelve windows, a nod to the patriarchs and the apostles reminding us of the church of all the ages, and the great cloud of witnesses about the church militant. All the light coming in shines from above. Simple decor and wise use of space indicate that the light of nature has also taught the people one or two things.
The grand opening began on the evening of Friday 2nd December 2016. The particular focus of this night was the immediate community, a good number of whom were represented in the crowd who filled the building, along with several local dignitaries. The first act of the evening was to go back outside for the unveiling of the stone plaque bearing the church’s name and the five key Reformation solas. Underneath, a bronze plate records thanks to the God of all grace, and to his people – known to himself – whose generosity has contributed to the erection of the building. Pastor Reno Ulfo spoke simply as the green cloth dropped from the plaque, and we all filed back inside.
The strains of “Amazing Grace” in Italian filled the building before Pastor Leonardo de Chirico (Chiesa Evangelica Breccia di Roma) opened proceedings. He spoke briefly and pungently of the purpose of the church, addressing the local authorities plainly, and broadening his gospel applications to all those gathered. It was both instruction in and an example of the priorities of the people of God. The local mayor responded, followed by one of his predecessors. Both spoke as politicians, but I thought that in both a note of personal respect and some interest could be detected. Certainly, this opens up a door of opportunity for the church. The fact that the building has been constructed without draining local civil funds – unusual for this part of the world – is a testimony in itself. Already this is established as a congregation that gives more than it takes.
Professor Bolognesi of Padova then briefly outlined the theological implications of the architecture. Pastor Reno went on to identify several people and groups who had made particular contributions to the building project. After this, a video history of the church was shown. Minor technical problems, typical of life in new premises, somewhat curtailed that exercise. I don’t believe anyone was too bothered, though, as it ushered in refreshments. Light and sweet Sicilian snacks paved the way for the heavy stuff – rice balls and varieties of pizza providing enough carbohydrates for the most demanding athletes, and with enough leftovers to keep many small armies on their feet for a week or two. One is tempted to suggest that a good twelve baskets of hefty fragments could have been gathered.
Notable on this first evening and over the whole weekend – and highlighted in Pastor Reno’s thanksgiving – was the investment of the whole church, both local and beyond. The tireless and generous contributions of God’s people were evident even before attention was drawn to them. The fruits of the work were often more evident than the workers themselves, but it was clear how much had been given by so many, in terms of time, energy, and expertise. The living stones have not been neglected for the sake of the concrete blocks. Particularly moving was Pastor Ulfo’s brief tribute to his family. Few will appreciate that, for all the pastor’s sacrifices, those made by his wife and children can often be greater. In some measure, they sacrifice him as well as for him and for the Lord. Giovanna Ulfo and the children deserve credit for the work that Reno Ulfo does, and it was good to see that publicly recorded. We pray that the fruit of Reno’s gospel labours might shine as brightly in his family as it does anywhere else.
As the night wound down, we drifted back to our various rooms and guesthouses. The Saturday began fairly slowly. The overseas preachers gathered again: Pastor Alan Dunn (Grace Covenant Baptist Church, Flemington, New Jersey, who was travelling with his wife, Patricia), Pastor Gordon Cook (Grace Baptist Church, Canton, Michigan), and myself. We met with a number of the key men at Caltanissetta, including all those involved in various church planting endeavours. We also chatted with our translator, Damion Wallace, to prepare for the next couple of days’ work. After the usual generous hospitality, we went back to our lodgings and prepared for the evening.
As we gathered, we discovered that some of our preparations had been less helpful than others. Damion was losing his voice. Alan Dunn had adopted a non-traditional way of arresting an unpremeditated act of violent genuflection he had undertaken in Reno’s home, viz. bringing his forehead into vigorous contact with a very hard object. Butterfly stitches and plasters had somewhat repaired the damage. Add in Gordon Cook’s travails in travel, and our fighting capacity was sliding badly. We forged ahead.
The focus of the ministry that night turned to the broader church, represented among us by various believers from around the island and further afield. With that in mind, we began to address the solas of the Reformation. I began with sola Scriptura, followed by Gordon Cook on solus Christus and Leonardo de Chirico on sola fide, before Alan Dunn closed the evening dealing with sola gratia. All the ministry seemed warmly appreciated, and fellowship over further piles of food was very profitable. There was clearly much intelligent and heartfelt engagement with the truth, and several men and women spoke thoughtfully and earnestly about what they were hearing.
The Lord’s day started early, and added to our catalogue of outward woes. Reno’s voice started to get croaky, and I had a blithe journey with a man who was late even before he casually announced that he did not know the way to the church building.
Despite all this, we started at a reasonable time. I completed the series on the solas with a study of soli Deo gloria. A brother called Jose was stepping in to assist with the translation, and did a cracking job. This day we were speaking more to the local church, and so I tried to make this a particular emphasis. From there we moved straight into the formal dedication of the building to the worship of the true and living God, and Pastor Reno preached the Word of God, giving us a wonderful survey of the concept of God’s temple throughout the Scriptures. He ensured we got and kept our eyes fixed on God’s presence among his people, rather than mere buildings. God also strengthened Damion’s voice and restored him to his duties, further assisted by Jose and Giovanni Marino, one of the faithful and gifted deacons in Caltanissetta. Several brothers – local pastors – stood and pleaded earnestly with God for a blessing on the church and its work in the new premises. Gordon Cook represented the visitors in this season of intercession.
Lunch followed before we turned, for the balance of the day, to the doctrines of grace. I opened on the depravity of fallen man, and was able to finish before the effects of our latest abundant feeding were too well-advanced. Pastor Dunn followed with redemptive-historical studies on the election of God and the redemption that Christ accomplished. The weight of these sessions was, for me, relieved by a delightful older lady doubtless using headphones for the first time. This meant that she regularly bellowed at her husband at a volume which ensured that she could hear her own voice. She also cackled loudly at anything humorous about fifteen seconds after it was spoken, as the translation caught up.
Given Reno’s other duties and to preserve his voice, I had the unexpected opportunity to address the irresistible grace of the Spirit’s work in the heart. By this stage, the folks were flagging, and several had been obliged to leave, so I kept it to about thirty minutes. Pastor Cook finished the public ministry by highlighting the perseverance and preservation of the saints, admirably demonstrated on one level by the fact that most of them were still listening to us after three days of intense teaching and preaching. Gordon’s focus on the double grip of divine power and love from John 10 was a fitting end. As Pastor Ulfo said, “dulcis in fundo” – “the sweet stuff is at the bottom.”
There seems little doubt that God’s strength was made perfect in our weakness on this occasion. Weariness, illness and injury in us was outmatched by grace and goodness in him and in the patience and earnestness of those hearing.
Monday morning saw Reno and I have a brief opportunity to explain the gospel to a couple of people at my lodging house. Attempts at trilingual (English, Italian, French) evangelising leave me half-wishing that the gift of tongues remained extant. Would it not be wonderful if these brief contacts bore gospel fruit?
We drifted toward Catania for Pastor Cook’s last preaching engagement and my flight home. Along the way, we stopped at a city set on a hill, Calascibetta. Unfortunately, far from being an enlightened and enlightening place, it was wrapped in fog and sunk in spiritual darkness. A visit to the Roman Catholic church building confirmed the vacuity of the question driving one hundred conferences in the next year: Is the Reformation over? That so much genuine spiritual ugliness could be communicated in a place of undeniable architectural beauty answered that question, for these falsehoods if not for many more. Flagrant Mariolatry vied for the laurel of ungodliness with statues of the church ‘patron’, Peter, decked out in all the regalia and symbolic power of the pope. From the position of the building to the message of the decor to the arrogance of the priest (it became clear as we spoke that he was an old-school Catholic and personally godless), it all shouts a message of carnal dominion that Islam itself can only rival.
Walking back down the damp streets, we paused at the prison from which a man called Francesco Giovanni Porcaro was taken by the Spanish Inquisition to his death by burning. His crimes? Denying Christ in the sacrament, indulgences, and the pope, as well as propagating the doctrines of Luther and other errors, and continuing in the above with all obstinacy. It is good to know that the light once shone in this now-gloomy city. We should pray that it would prove true once more – post tenebras, lux! Reno’s promise that there would be open-air gospel preaching on this spot in the coming year was some consolation that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ would again beam forth. But who knows what price this and coming generations must pay for such faithfulness?
Sobered, we entered Catania and found some food at Fud, a delightful restaurant where options included horse and donkey. I opted for a more than bearable and not too risky buffalo, joined by Reno. Patricia Dunn, afflicted throughout the weekend by the presence of all the men, and having worked like a Trojan alongside the friends at Sola Grazia, opted for a ladylike salad. Alan had something fittingly but reliably cheesy, and Gordon got himself outside of a sandwich that may have involved a fairly safe chicken.
Our conversation over lunch centred on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the churches we love and serve. As ever, hard questions rarely produce easy answers. Still, they are better than empty questions carelessly shrugged off.
It was with joy and sorrow that we arrived at the airport. It had been sweet fellowship in Christ and his service, and there was more work for us all to do already looming. With mutually renewed promises of communication and prayer, information to exchange and promises to keep, I strolled through security. They drove off into the sunset, and I flew off into the darkness.