The following story if from John Shaw Anderson’s book, Heroes of the Faith in Modern Italy (first published in 1914*). Lighthouse Trails decided to add this book to our collection of resources as we saw the immense value of these true stories of courageous men and women in Italy in the late 1800s, when to leave the Roman Catholic Church after becoming born again in Jesus Christ meant sure persecution. We pray that such stories, when read, will increase the reader’s courage to seek out and stand for truth no matter the cost.
“Pietro—The Christian Italian Ex-Priest” by John Shaw Anderson
The first of our duties is the love of truth and faith in it.—Pellico.
It used to be the proudest ambition of an Italian mother to hear at least one of her sons say mass, and early one bright Sunday morning a happy Signora entered the Church of Santa Maria to hear young Don Pietro” say his first mass.” He too had well nigh reached the zenith of his hopes and had devoutly prepared himself for the solemn occasion. He duly received the congratulations of his numerous friends and sacred colleagues, many of whom had gone to “hear” his first priestly officium.
Don Pietro had been early dedicated to the Romish priesthood by his devout mother, who never missed a matin nor a vesper. In due time, he entered the local seminary. While still a mere lad, he walked proudly in the collegiate procession, doubtless tempted, like all his companions, to measure his religion by the breadth of his hat and length of his robe.
Young Pietro proved an ideal seminarist and had never to be rebuked for any act of insubordination; nor was there against his record any suspicion of independent inquiry. He had received with absolute assent the dogmas of his teachers and had never asked even himself the meaning of anything. To him the Church was infallible: to doubt was to be doomed. Implicit obedience was the conductor by which Rome’s electricity had passed to his young mind.
As soon as he had waded through the muddy waters of the literature of pagan Rome, he entered those of papal Roman tradition, and his head was soon filled with scholastic theology.
Not far from the seminary, there was an evangelical church, and young Pietro never passed it without crossing himself and saying an we Maria or a Salve Regina. He was a true son of the Church: piety, not pleasure, was his ideal. He spent his evenings in reading and meditation.
Pietro had now passed from the lessons and lectures of his teachers and began to feel the freedom and the responsibility of his individual life. His little library began to grow richer, his mind embraced a wider vista than it could have done within the walls of the seminary, and his moral and intellectual growth seemed to be causing him to say: ” When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man I have put away childish things ” (1 Cor. 13:11).
But in putting away the things which had formed so great a part of his more juvenile education, he soon became aware that he was shaking the weak foundations of his faith. The crisis took place in a very simple and unexpected way. He had been reading his favorite ” father,” St. Augustine (De vera religiose, cap. 55) and found that Rome’s great patron of theology did not favor the worship of saints, as he had been accustomed to think. This led him to the deeper reflection on the subject: even prayers offered to the saints involve the logical supposition of their omnipresence and omniscience. But he shuddered as he suddenly discovered himself actually doubting a dogma of the Church.
The confessional did not fascinate Don Pietro as it generally does the priesthood of Rome: he felt it an unpleasant ordeal to listen to the confessions of his penitents, and he certainly was not an expert in the art of eliciting the secrets of the human heart. Nor did “the keys” cause him much trouble. His religious tendencies led him to think of the altar rather than the confessional. He determined, however, that he would not allow any fresh thought to grow too hastily, and so he suspended his reflections on all doctrines relating to the saints. To him the mass was the great center of all faith: as he approached the altar, he seemed to leave all doubt behind him. His other official duties, moreover, enabled him to forget the first shocks which his faith might have received.
But these victories over reflection were short lived. The final attack upon the stronghold of his traditional creed was to come from the very quarter he least expected, the altar!
One morning, Don Pietro was returning home from mass when the question came to him with an almost irresistible force: “What is the historical basis of this sacrament?” With this question struggling in his mind, he arrived home and shut himself in his room. The struggle continued, and at last, he sought refuge in the famous creed of Pius IV.: “I profess, likewise, that in the mass there is offered to God a proper and propitiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead. And that, in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, there are truly, really and substantially the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that there is made a conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the blood: which conversion the Catholic Church calls transubstantiation. I also confess that under either kind alone Christ is received whole and entire, and a true sacrament.”
“That is an infallible dogma,” exclaimed Don Pietro to himself. “Dare I doubt it I But . . . Away with every but: I must not question! Then may I reflect? I must tune my creed and my conscience to better harmony.”
Don Pietro found that this, his first mental and moral struggle was with habit: he experienced no freedom of thought or action, and as he approached the borders of that unknown, untrodden pat—-liberty—he trembled and retraced his steps and sought peace in the dogma that the sacraments of the Church are “mysteries.” The “mysteries” of the mass, however, followed him to and from the altar. The thought haunted him: “Is it not sacrilege for me to perform this most sacred of all acts while I am in the most utter ignorance of what I am really doing? If this wafer does not really become God, and if I worship it, am I not an idolater?” Rome’s dogma was dying a natural death in his mind, and its ceremonial paraphernalia was losing its fascination. As he entered the Church, the candle light seemed dim compared with God’s bright sunshine outside; his robbing ceremony no longer prepared him for the altar; he bowed before the host, muttered his sacred Latin, turned himself with perfect ceremony, but all was artificial to him. Yet he must needs fulfill his office without suspicion: none of his blindly reverend colleagues nor superiors must know anything about his internal struggle. But was there no friend outside the clerical circle to whom he could confide his trouble, from whom he could seek help?
Don Pietro remembered a learned professor, esteemed and beloved by all who knew him, sympathetic and kind; an ideal friend to whom he could entrust such a sacred secret.
It was evening when Don Pietro called at the Professor’s house, and before entering, he crossed himself and sighed to Heaven the hope that he might be guided in his difficulty. Apologizing for his visit he at once got to its object, explaining that it was of a most private and confidential nature.
“The question,” he began, “I have to ask you is concerning the mass, and to come to the point, as to its historical basis. I feel lost in the midst of dogma, and I want the light of history.”
“Well, Don Pietro, you know that, historically speaking, the Church professes that the mass had its origin in the Lord’s Supper. Personally, I think it has fatally erred in its dogma, but let us get to the historical basis. This must be the accounts in the Gospel. Have you a copy of the Vulgate? “
“No, Professor, I am sorry I have not a copy with me, but I have one in my library.”
“Never mind, I have a copy here. Now let us read first of all the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 26:26; then Luke 24:30, and finally 1 Cor. 11:23-25. I think in these passages of Holy Scripture we find the real, original, historical basis of what I believe to be a traditional corruption —the mass.”
“Well, professor, I may not go so far as you do, but my doubts on the subject are causing me great and grave trouble; and I shall carefully meditate upon the passages you have quoted and which I have noted.”
Thus ended Don Pietro’s first brief visit to one who afterward proved to be his friend. Returning home he spent the late hours of the evening in calm reflection on the subject which so deeply occupied his mind. Taking his Vulgate Bible from his little library, he read Matt. 26:26. The statement that Christ, after breaking the bread, gave it to His disciples, came to him with a fresh and living meaning, and he thought: ” If Christ gave the bread to His disciples, it could not have been a sacrifice, because a sacrifice is offered to God. But, suppose it to have been a propitiatory sacrifice, then Christ must have offered two such sacrifices, one in the upper room and one on the cross.”
The thought of two propitiatory sacrifices offered by Christ, presented to Don Pietro a still graver difficulty, and he became lost in a theological fog. While groping his way out, he remembered that near him lived a Protestant gentleman, pious and esteemed, and the only good thing Don Pietro knew about the Protestanti was that they loved the Bible, and he thought that his neighbor would be sure to help him from a scriptural point of view to solve this question of a double propitiatory sacrifice offered by Christ. ” But,” thought he, ” after all that I have heard of the Protestant heresy, can a Protestant guide me even a step to the truth? And, besides, he may confuse my mind with his Bible. But I have my Vulgate, and I could take it with me. Well, I shall sleep over the question and see how I feel on the morrow.”
The following morning Don Pietro said mass, the last he ever said! What a difference between it and the first mass he had said under the influence of his new official pride. Then he did not inquire the meaning of anything: now all was mysteriously dark. Evening came, and he made up his mind to visit his Protestant neighbor. He arrived at the gate and stood a little, reflecting, looking here and there, and entered. Having introduced himself, he explained the nature of his visit. Although a perfect stranger, he received a cordial and sympathetic welcome. The subject was soon opened, and Don Pietro gave it point by asking his friend whether the Holy Scripture afforded any ground for the mass being considered as an unbloody sacrifice. Heb. 9:22 was read: “Without shedding of blood is no remission.” As to Christ’s suffering only once, verse 26 was quoted: ” For then must He often have suffered since the foundation of the world, but now once in the end of the world hath He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”
“That seems conclusive,” remarked Don Pietro as he re-read the passage. “Christ offered only one propitiatory sacrifice for sin, and that on the Cross. If so, the mass is not a propitiatory sacrifice, and I am not a priest.”
This led to a conversation on the subject of priesthood. It was shown that the word ιἑρευς (priest) is never applied to any of the New Testament servants of God as such, while all believers form a holy priesthood. Two verses were read from 1 Peter 2: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (verse 5), “a royal priesthood” (verse 9). Then followed the reading of two verses from the book of Revelation: “Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (1:5-6); “unto our God kings and priests” (v. 5:10).
(1: 6); “unto our God a kingdom and priests” (v. 10).
Don Pietro having made a note of these passages of Scripture, arose and thanking his kind friend, expressed the hope that they might soon meet again.
His greatest trial now was in maintaining a dual life: he had to conceal from his mother, the people and the local priesthood the spiritual experience through which he was passing. “I must choose between playing the hypocrite and passing as a heretic.” This was the decisive question with which he in vain sought sleep that night. The morning found him still wearied, and he arose late, spending the afternoon reading afresh the Scripture which he had noted in his Vulgate Bible. The early evening found him again at the house of his friendly neighbor to whom the unexpected visit was a pleasant surprise: Don Pietro looked very careworn, and his friend perceived that it was a question of the spiritual condition more than the official position of the young priest.
“What a sublime doxology that is which we were reading last night, the New Song: Thou art worthy’ Can you sing it, Don Pietro?”
“No, I cannot! “
Saying so he wept, sobbing out the deepest feelings of his soul: “I am unworthy.”
“Weep not, Don Pietro. The New Song is not: “I am worthy,” but “Thou art worthy.” Let us read slowly this beautiful doxology: “Thou art worthy… for Thou wast slain, and hath redeemed… “
“Me,” interposed Don Pietro.
… “to God by Thy blood.”
“There is no place in the New Song for the boast of works of supererogation,” exclaimed Don Pietro, continuing: “Thou art worthy… Thou wast slain… Thou hast redeemed. This is the Gospel, echoed in Heaven. I believe it!”
Don Pietro was deeply moved, and preferred to maintain the spiritual tone of the conversation, avoiding all reference to mere dogma. His friend afterward prayed with him and for him; and rising from his knees Don Pietro embraced him saying: “Now I am your brother: call me no longer Don Pietro. Continue to pray for me.” Nor shall we call him Don Pietro any more, but simply Pietro.
However calmly and carefully he had counted the cost, he did not, he could not know the bitterness of the persecution he was now to endure as a follower of Christ. His conversion was not an official, dogmatical change of religion; it was not a step from popery to Protestantism: it was from self to Christ. Hence, Pietro made no reclame of his conversion, such as mere religionists are wont to favor by the public recantation of their past errors. His daily life became a testimony to the reality of his conversion.
The first verbal confession of his personal faith in Christ was made to his mother, and it caused an immediate and irreconcilable rupture. Pietro was not a stoic, and his filial feelings were torn with grief by the action which his mother was by the confessional obliged to adopt. He next wrote to his late bishop a respectful letter, informing him of his separation from the Romish Church, but the news had already reached him. Pietro possessed numerous documents of a recent date, proving how highly he was held in esteem by the local ecclesiastical authorities, and these made no attack upon his character nor motives, but contented themselves with his excommunication and its consequent isolation from the fellowship of his relatives and friends.
Pietro had now to face the question, exercising many young priests of Rome today: how to earn a living; and if they would only face it, as Pietro did, with faith in God, their religious freedom would be an accomplished fact. Pietro was not ashamed to work. He rejoiced to know that God had justified him by faith, and he lived to prove that his faith was not “without works.” He preached the Gospel publicly and powerfully, and day by day enjoyed in his own experience the theme of his Gospel testimony: “The just shall live by faith.”
The Romish priesthood may morally and spiritually be divided into three classes: Those who entered it without any serious reflection and remain in it simply as a profession by which they may gain a living. And we freely and frankly admit that the Roman Catholic Church is not the only religious sphere in which this class is found. To it there is no great moral gulf between truth and error, right and wrong. All is convenience. We confess that with this class we have little sympathy and for it much pity.
Those who entered the Romish priesthood and remain in it from a sincere conviction of the sacredness of the office. For these we have a sincere and prayerful consideration.
Those who entered the Romish priesthood sincerely believing it to be a Divine Institution, but have now discovered the true priesthood of all believers in the Gospel dispensation, and are sincerely endeavoring to follow its holy and heavenly calling. For this increasing class, to which Pietro belonged, we have the deepest sympathy and fellowship.
The conversion to God of any man, be he a public priest or a private person, should not be judged from any party standpoint. Pietro’s conversion was not a step from the dogma of Rome to another creed, but from a state of spiritual doubt and darkness to the assurance and light of the Gospel.
The story you have just read is from Heroes of the Faith in Modern Italy. If you are a Roman Catholic and would like more information, Lighthouse Trails will happily send you a free copy of a booklet we publish titled The New Evangelism From Rome or Finding the True Jesus Christ. Just send us your name and mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Your information will remain confidential.)
(Painting from istockphoto.com; used with permission; of a Catholic church in the 1800s)