While the political landscape is being altered in a country, how often widespread spiritual renovations also occur. This has been true in Eastern Europe in the last decade. It was also true of the work of God in Italy in the last century.
Teodoro Pietrocola Rossetti performed a key part in that spiritual work. He was born in 1825, and brought up religiously. He had a scholastic bent, and enjoyed reciting and discussing the Latin and Italian poets. Poetry seemed to him innate. Even Rossetti’s earliest compositions showed his poetic vein. The serious young man was so blameless that friends of his parents predicted the lad would become a Saint! How truly that prophecy was fulfilled.
At the age of nineteen, he became friends with a priest a few years his senior. They planned a long walk in the country one Sunday after mass. Rossetti arrived early that morning to his friend’s house, purposing to go with him to the solemn sacrament. To his shock he discovered the young priest sitting up to a hearty Italian breakfast of ham, figs, and wine !
“What are you doing? Are you not going to say mass? And here you are eating!”
“What harm is there?” the young priest shrugged.
“Why, it is a mortal sin to eat before receiving the Lord,” protested Rossetti.
“Who says so?” retorted the young priest.
“Why, the holy mother church!”
“Oh, my son,” answered the easy-going young priest, “if you believe all that the holy mother church teaches, you will believe many things that are not true. Give me that book (pointing to the Vulgate Bible). Read here what it says in Luke 22:19, ‘This is My body, which is given for you.’ Do you believe that it is possible to do anything in remembrance of a person who is present; or that a person can have two bodies at one time, which would have been the case if the bread had become the body of the Lord? If you believe this, then you must believe that He is a vine and a door.” The young priest had rocked Rossetti’s faith in Catholicism.
At the age of twenty-one, he went to Naples and entered the university. That was in 1846, when Italy was convulsed with political agitation. The craving for freedom captured the youth of Italy. Before 1870, Italy was only a collection of small kingdoms and duchies, many of them practically owned by foreign European powers such as France and Austria. “It has been well said that, since the fall of the Roman Empire, Italy was ‘no more a nation than a stack of timber is a ship.’ Italy was, as Metternich, the Prime Minister of Austria, said, ‘a geographical expression.’ She was a patchwork of states, large and small, under the rule of foreign tyrants such as the Hapsburgs and Bourbons, with the north separated from the south by a broad belt over which the Pope and his minions held despotic, but, thanks to the great French Revolution, no longer undisputed sway.” (Garibaldi the Liberator by S. Stuart Starritt).
Rossetti was swept along in the revolutionary cause. But it was costly to speak against the Bourbon government. The overcrowded dungeons holding political prisoners in the Bourbon’s realm were the scandal of Europe at that time. Gladstone visited Naples and published a stinging report that horrified England. In San Stefano, the cultured Settembrini, “the man with a clear conscience and a big heart,” was confined for years. From his cell he wrote, “My body and my clothes are soiled; it is of no use to try to keep clean; the smoke and dirt make me sickening to myself. My spirit is tainted; I feel all the hideousness, the horror, the terror of crime; had I remorse, I should think I, too, was a criminal. My spirit is being undone. It seems to me as if my hands also were foul with blood and theft. I forget virtue and beauty. O my God, Father of the unfortunate, Consoler of those who suffer, oh, save my soul from this filth, and if Thou hast written I must here end my sorrowful life, oh, let that end come soon.”
This was a climate for revolutionary fervor. Once Rossetti voiced himself, the enforcers under Ferdinand II (known to history as Bomba) sought to arrest him. He escaped to France where his literary abilities opened friendships within the French nobility. But when he discovered that Bomba’s men were taking steps to extradite him, he disappeared across the English Channel.
Reaching England at the close of 1851, he moved among other political refugees and was quite at home with the literary personalities in London. With his storehouse of classical poetry, fired with his intense nationalism, his pen did not lack subject matter.
Rossetti had successfully eluded Bomba, but he seemed unaware of Another who was pursuing him. There in the land of exile, God was working to bring him captive to the Lord Jesus Christ. J. S. Anderson tells how: “It was one of God’s links in the golden chain of His grace” that Rossetti should go to Teignmouth to teach. Here Count Guicciardini was staying, and the two Italian exiles met. That was a historical meeting! As they walked along the shore, the Count asked Rossetti: “If you were to die tonight, what would become of you?”
“If I were to die tonight? Indeed, I do not know what would become of me,” replied his friend, taken by surprise with a question so unexpected and of such solemn, personal import.
“If I were to die tonight, I know where I would go,” peacefully said the nobleman.
“Excuse me, Count, but to say what you say, one must be either ignorant or presumptuous,” exclaimed Rossetti.
“Well, let it be so. I may be ignorant and you learned, but all the same I know where I am going and you do not,” repeated the Count with a quiet assurance.
No more was said, but enough had been said. Guicciardini was a dignified nobleman who had received the finest education obtainable in Europe, and he had moved among royalty, yet he spoke with the simplicity of a child. This visit on the beach was a stunning blow to Rossetti’s pride. That night he could not sleep.
Back in London, Rossetti was employed teaching Italian. Among his students was a Christian man, who suggested reading the New Testament in Italian. One day the reading was in Ephesians 2. The student read, “By grace ye are saved,” and then gave an explanation of the verse. Grace was at work. Thereafter the grace of God became the greatest theme of Rossetti’s life.
A few days later, his Christian pupil said to him: “I am going to a meeting tonight.” “A meeting? What kind of meeting?” inquired Rossetti. “It is a meeting that has nothing to do with politics,” replied the student, adding politely, “If you would like to come, I should take you there. It is in Orchard Street.”
Rossetti went, and found a number of people met to read and meditate on the Holy Scriptures. What a meeting that was! He never departed from what he learned there. It was the old, unchangeable theology of the gospel he received, and in its rich, spiritual truths he became an established believer. Among those by whose Christian fellowship he early profited were Lord Congleton, Lord Radstock, Col. Bell, Dr. Maclean, George Muller and Robert C. Chapman.
Liberty had been granted in Piedmont, and the spiritual awakening there was spreading. The news of its needs reached Rossetti, while that of his conversion had reached his brethren in Italy. He had prospects of a brilliant literary career in England, but the gospel call from Italy came with such irresistible power that he went to the Embassy in London and got his passport, signed by Cavour, “to preach the gospel.”
From the meeting on Orchard Street, London, Rossetti left secure England to go preach the free gospel among his countrymen. R. C. Chapman preached a farewell address, and Rossetti implored his brethren that they would pray that he might be blessed in Italy. Rossetti got on his knees as one of the elder brethren offered fervent prayer while the other elders held their hands over his head.
Alessandria became the first center of Rossetti’s work in Italy. This Piedmontese city, which lies in a plain at the junction of the rivers Bormida and Tanaro, and possesses one of the strongest fortresses in Europe, was called after Pope Alexander III, who raised it to a bishop’s see. The labors of Rossetti made it the center of evangelical testimony in Italy. He gathered around him a band of Christian young men, to whom he taught the Word and guided in the work of God. He infused these national evangelists with a contagious boldness.
From the Piedmont in the north, the gospel spread south. From the city of Rome, monks arrived to preach against the heretic Rossetti. But by this time Rossetti had the fellowship of several able Italian brethren. A few among these faithful witnesses were educated men of social position, but most belonged to humbler ranks: all preached the same gospel.
When the opposition turned ugly, Rossetti challenged his hearers: “They wish to send us evangelists away. What will you do? Will you return to your idols?” The happy response to Rossetti’s challenge was seen in the spreading flame of awakening.
Shortly after this, the Church in Alessandria met for the first time at the Lord’s Supper. Rossetti published a few of his choice hymns, which were sung by that simple, saintly company.
Persecution against the gospel continued more aggressively. Rossetti could say with Paul: “Once was I stoned.” The injury looked serious, but undaunted, the bandaged Rossetti preached that same night. To the sympathizers who gathered around him, he said with a satisfied smile: “I was hoping that the stones might not wound your faith.”
Once Rossetti was expected at Spinetta by train. A local priest incited two hundred young toughs to welcome his arrival with stones and clubs! The train arrived, but Rossetti did not step off the train–he had missed his connection. The hooligans assumed that the authorities in Alessandria had arrested the heretic, and they went home, confident that he would never dare return to Spinetta. Those who had gathered to hear the gospel remained in the hall, and were discussing the situation when the door opened. It was Rossetti. He had come in a carriage rather than disappoint the people. In 1868, he convened the first annual Agape held there. This Christian gathering has encouraged thousands of God’s people in Italy.
Rossetti’s work spread across the rugged terrain of Italy. Turin, Genoa, Florence and Rome enjoyed his ministry. Despite poor health, Rossetti joyfully pushed ahead. Reaching Florence, he met with the saints there on Sunday, June 3, 1883. He read Acts 7:5-6; Hebrews 13:8-15; Revelation 1:4-6; 4:1; 5:9-14; and spoke with great feeling and power of the joy and glory reserved in heaven for all the redeemed. Those who heard him said afterwards: “He transported us to heaven.” Finishing his exhortation, he sat down, and was ready to stand again to give out a hymn, when he passed into the Lord’s presence. No doubt, he joined the chorus on the other side.
Brethren: the Story of a Great Recovery, by David J. Beattie
Chief Men Among the Brethren, by Hy. Pickering
Forgotten Heroes, by C. J. Casher
Garibaldi the Liberator, by S. Stuart Starritt
Heroes of the Faith in Modern Italy, by J. S. Anderson
That the World May Know, Vol. 8, edited by F. A. Tatford