Italy, Europe, South America

Current News & Ministries

South American Perspective on Pope Francis
Release 2/12/2014

The fifty first synod of the Waldensian Evangelical Church of the River Plate took place this last weekend, February 8-10, at a retreat center near Colonia Valdense in southwestern Uruguay. With the help of Pastor Marcelo Gomez of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil, delegates at the synod explored the theme, “Training for Mission: Tradition and Renewal in the Ministries of the Church.” In the near future, we hope to report on what happened at the synod and what it will mean for Waldensian witness in South America.

One of those in attendance, Pastor Dario Barolin, offered his own comments about a theme we reported on recently from an Italian and North American perspective; namely how Waldensians regard Pope Francis:

Almost a year ago, someone we had all known, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected pope. Pope Francis appeared in the balcony of the papal apartment on St. Peter’s Square with a good, well structured and simple message. My first impression was being elected pope had not changed him. During his time as Buenos Aires’ archbishop, Bergoglio was known for his humility, his directness, his way of speaking simply to people about complex issues and for the way he would often walk or take a bus rather than take a limousine to visit the neighborhoods of his large archdiocese.

I was happy that an Argentinian had been elected pope. The first thing I thought of was his relationship with Norberto Berton, a Waldensian Pastor from Argentina. They were good friends and had engaged many times in theological discussions as well as conversations about the many other subjects friends talk about. I also remembered that it was because of Jorge Bergoglio that Norberto was invited to live in a retirement home for Catholic priests.

On the other hand, politicians who can claim that Bergoglio favors their viewpoints on important social issues can now try to use his election as pope to advance their own agendas. In fact, Bergoglio had been critical of the Argentine government in many areas, often calling for dialogue about controversial issues. He was especially upset when the government introduced a law which put gay and lesbian marriage at the same level as heterosexual marriage. (Of course, Bergoglio’s position on gay marriage was exactly what you’d expect, given Catholic opinion on such issues.)

Bergoglio's actions during the last dictatorship in Argentina have also been much discussed. Some have defended him and said that he had worked behind the scenes to save some people from possible torture or execution. Others have criticized his silence concerning the dictatorship. One point on which all observers agree is that Bergoglio was not one of those religious leaders who agitated publically against the military forces. My overall impression is that Bergoglio almost always avoided taking clear positions against the dictatorship and tried to find a way to conciliate or to negotiate with them instead.

What is important to me is that a pope from the very south of the world will bring fresh perspectives to the global church, perspectives which are much closer to the concerns of ordinary people than to the theological speculation which has often passed for church teaching. What I do not know, however, is how much he is really willing to push the discussions or how much power he really has to introduce the changes that the Roman Catholic Church needs.

A statement of his during his flight back from Brazil after his first visit to the Americas as pope was a clear demonstration of the fresh perspectives he hopes to bring. He described several controversial issues from a pastoral rather than a dogmatic point of view including homosexuality, communion for couples who have remarried after a divorce and the role of women in the church. However, very soon after the pope’s airplane interview, the Commission for the Doctrine of Faith and the Pontifical Council for the Family issued statements that were presented as clarifying any "misinterpretation" of the Pope's words but, in fact, retracted much of what he said..

I hope Francis will be able to open the Roman Catholic Church to a new perspective in theological discussions. However, I must confess that I am skeptical that the church he now heads will actually respond to his leadership.

On the positive side, I see a pope who no longer will tolerate child sexual abuse and who is already willing to be more transparent in reporting the finances of the Holy See. Theologically he has also made some interesting statements: In his first speech as pope, he made a distinction between the true church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church. This distinction has the potential of sparking a new and more open ecumenical dialogue. Finally, the new pope keeps pushing his church to be closer to its people, at once more pastoral and more humble.
Pastor Dario Barolin grew up in Argentina during the military dictatorship which he mentions above. According to the former dictator, General Jorge Rafael Videla, this dictatorship was tacitly approved by Cardinal Raúl Francisco Primatesta, then the leading Catholic prelate in Argentina. Pastor Barolin remembers statues of the Virgin Mary in his public school classroom and priests visiting his school to recruit students for catechism classes. The Catholic Church’s favored position in the school ended with the collapse of the dictatorship in 1983.

Barolin is pastor of a Waldensian congregation in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. Since he became pastor there, his congregation has attracted new members with non-Waldensian backgrounds including former Catholics, Baptists, and Pentecostals.
Barolin is also a part-time professor of Old Testament at the Higher Evangelical Institute for Theological Studies (I.S.E.D.E.T. ), an ecumenical seminary in Buenos Aires, and part-time executive secretary of the Alliance of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches of Latin America (AIPRAL), an organization that includes Presbyterian, Reformed, Waldensian, and Congregational churches, as well as the Moravian Church of Nicaragua.

Moderator Bernardini Meets Pope Francis
Released 2/2/2014

Pope Francis’ and Eugenio Bernardini, the Moderator of the Italian Waldensian Church, recently met for the first time. Their meeting took place in the context of a larger gathering organized by the Saint Egidio Community. Moderator Bernardini was the first representative of Italian Protestants to meet the new pope. Here is what he said about that meeting:

The Swiss Guards were tense, as would be anyone who was charged with guarding one of the world’s important people. If you didn’t immediately show your official invitation, the Guards could become quite impatient. Everyone got the same treatment, even a very mild Asian woman who was a little confused by the whole situation and was frantically trying to find her invitation among the contents of her purse.

I don’t question that the security concerns of the pope’s protectors are legitimate. There are a lot of crazy people on our planet who suffer from every kind of religious psychosis. The point is that what you see when you’re inside the Vatican is just what you see when you’re outside: a use of power which produces fear rather than respect. This fear persists notwithstanding what I think are the sincere efforts of Saint Francis to give that power a more human face.

After climbing a long series of staircases and passing through some exquisitely frescoed rooms, we reached the reception hall of Clement VIII. Here Andrea Riccardi, who as a high school student was a founder of the Egidio Community and from 2011 to 2013 was the Minister for International Cooperation under Prime Minister Mario Monti, gave a speech. The Egidio Community had invited approximately 400 world religious leaders to Rome to build support for its efforts on behalf of dialogue and peace. Riccardi emphasized how dialogue among religions is the most effective way to bring about peace and understanding between peoples.

Then the pope spoke, emphasizing his belief that there can be no religious justification for violence. The pope went on to say that we need to restore a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood among people of faith.

I watched him from a distance in the large hall. I saw his famous black shoes which contrasted with the white vestments which only he is supposed to wear. The pope had Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, Pope Benedict’s former secretary, next to him and, just a bit further away, five cardinals all attired in fine purple. The pope looked a bit tired. He had arrived late because of an earlier meeting with the commission which he had appointed to reform the Roman curia. Nevertheless he spoke clearly, in a very open way, with absolutely no formality, sharing himself completely with those present. Then those in the first two rows, who had been chosen beforehand, lined up to meet the pope individually and exchange a couple words with him.

I thought for a few seconds about what I might say to him. I decided, out of respect for his South American background, to speak in Spanish. I mentioned that our church also has congregations and pastors in Buenos Aires and elsewhere in the Rio de la Plata region. The pope clasped his hands and seemed surprised that he would meet someone in Rome who could be associated with the Waldensians of the region he came from. He told me he remembered a Waldensian pastor and theology professor who was a good friend of his, Norberto Berton. When Pastor Berton was no longer self-sufficient during the last years of his life, Francis, who was then the archbishop of Buenos Aires, made a place for him in a home for retired priests. Berton died there in 2010.

A member of the St. Egidio Community and I left the apostolic palace together. We exchanged our impressions of the new pope. Catholics in the St Egidio Community are progressive people all, committed to working with the excluded in Italy and the rest of the world. St. Egidio members have a profound spirituality and an equally profound love of the Scripture. This pope perfectly matches their hopes. They see him bringing change to the internal life of the Catholic Church and to the ways that its world headquarters in the Vatican operates.

It’s a change of direction which has existed for a while in Catholicism but which today still represents a minority point of view. It is a direction which was epitomized by Carlo Maria Montini, the former archbishop of Florence who was also a Jesuit: a church with a human face, open to modern culture and respectful of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, a church which is both modest in its claims and imbued with solidarity for the poor and the excluded, which prefers the Bible to tradition, Jesus more than Mary. That is very good. At the moment it’s the best for which we could possibly hope. It’s the Catholicism which has been our companion in working with the poor in many places in Italy and around the world.

Another Waldensian Perspective on Pope Francis

Luciano Kovacs, a Waldensian from Torre Pellice, Italy, who is presently the North American Regional Secretary of the World Student Christian Federation, wrote the following piece for the American Waldensian Society. Taken together, Eugenio Bernardini and Luciano Kovacs represent a cross section of what is probably an even wider spectrum of Italian Waldensian perceptions about Pope Francis. We hope in the near future to post some South American Waldensian reactions to the new pope as well.

When I was asked to write a short piece on what I think about Pope Francis for the AWS newsletter, my first gut reaction was that I did not want to use my precious time writing about him. What has not changed in the papal turnover in the Vatican is the perennial presence of the Roman Catholic pontiff in the Italian news. Although I have lived in the United States for more than 15 years, I am an assiduous watcher of Rai News 24 on the internet and therefore, as is the case with all newscasts emanating from the Italian media landscape, images of the pope enter my home as frequently as if I were still residing in the country of my birth. No matter who the Bishop of Rome is, or what his theological underpinning, his moves or his words might be, Italian media and Italian politicians and intellectuals are as vulnerable to papal mystique as children to displays in a toy store. Thus, as a Waldensian, why would I want once again to acknowledge the power of one of the only few remaining absolute monarchs in the world by analyzing his deeds and speeches if it were not to contest the power he exercises as a foreign head of state in the internal affairs of Italy, just as his predecessors have always done?

What has changed however – and what has probably made me willing to write this short article- is the level of attention progressive Christians living outside Italy have given to Francis. They feel a kind of mesmerized fascination for him that is triggered by some of his enlightened pronouncements on capitalism, the tyranny of the market and a tepid attempt to change the course of his predecessor on the Roman Catholic Church’s official crusade against homosexuality and abortion. Recently I asked on Facebook why everybody has been so obsessively captivated by the Pope’s public persona since his election to the throne -given the fact that so many known and unknown Christian leaders and people in the pews have been expressing these and more radical ideas as long as I remember without having been showered with praise and public admiration., Two sorts of reactions appeared in response to my post. In the one group there were comments from friends and acquaintances who, like me, are critical of papal mainstream marketing-like announcements on issues that do not actually affect how the world functions. In the other group there were people who believe that the Pope’s positions on certain topics not only hold the promise of bringing lasting change to the Roman Catholic Church, but that his world leadership on issues of economics and war could have a huge impact on our ailing planet.

I certainly appreciate the style of Francis, his opposition to the powerful Roman Curia, his words on profit and warmongering as well as his desire to connect theological concepts to life-style commitments. Nonetheless, I remain skeptical that change in the Catholic Church is actually possible given the massive power the right-wing exerts both within and without the Catholic Church and given also the very essence of what the papacy represents. No matter whether you challenge the powers-to-be from a Global South perspective or you defend the conservative direction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pope remains the Pope, namely the authoritarian leader of a rigid hierarchical structure that will not be easily changed. I am interested in hearing critical voices of Catholics who have been on the forefront of justice struggles from within the Catholic Church – much more in fact than I am interested in listening to the admiring voices of American Protestants who see in Pope Francis the incarnation of a 21st century Reformer. In one of the most outstanding pieces I have read since Francis’ election, Catholic feminist theologian Mary Hunt, eloquently presents her critique of the new Pontiff in “The Trouble with Francis, Three Things that Worry Me”.  Mary Hunt, noting that the” phenomenon of a pope becoming a pop culture icon is fascinating, troubling, and not a little confusing”, points out also that: 1) the more the Pope is recognized in his authority regardless of what he says, the more difficult it is for theologians like her to promote structural change from within the church; 2) nothing has really changed for women and LGBTQI people in the church 3) doctrines and structures do not change substantially through public relations strategies intended to stop the hemorrhaging of Catholics out of their church unless they are followed by acts of radical hospitality to those who until now continue to be excluded from the Pope’s pulpit on a daily basis.

I stand ecumenically by radical Catholics like Mary Hunt in their unwaveringly critical thinking of what others see as a new era of change just as I stand by those who struggle from the bottom for radical change in society with no media attention or recognition and with no pompous humility.

Introducing the Newest Missionary in Italy!

Released 1/11/2014
JJ Ten Clay has been called to be the new “Social Action Worker” for a new cooperative ministry in Italy. Her job will be to help establish an umbrella network to provide services to some of the approximately 500,000 migrants living in the Naples area, facilitate integration into local Christian congregations, and identify opportunities for mission teams, educational institutions and denominations to participate in ministries that create lasting changes in migrants’ lives.

JJ is a master’s level social worker with extensive experience working in a variety of fields from child welfare, to medical social work, to geriatrics. She has a Master’s degree in Advanced Generalist Social Work from Grand Valley State University and is licensed in both New York and Michigan. As part of her education, she studied at the University of Durban in South Africa and participated in Intercultural Immersion programs led by the Rev. Dr. Don Bruggink in Rome and eastern and southern Turkey.

JJ is married to Tim, an ordained Reformed Church in America minister, who recently served on the editorial committee creating the new bi-denominational hymnal for the RCA and the Christian Reformed Church in North America entitled Lift up your Hearts. He has been the moderator of the RCA’s Commission on Christian worship and did his doctoral studies in Worship and Spirituality at Northern Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. JJ and Tim have two daughters: Sophia (8 years old) and Petra (4 years old).

JJ and Tim grew up in Iowa and met at Central College in Pella, IA where they both earned their bachelor’s degrees. They have served the Reformed Church in Pultneyville since 2010 and before that served Dunningville Reformed Church in Allegan, MI for 10 years. JJ is currently the manager of the Social Work department at St. Ann’s Community in Rochester, NY and has worked for Holland Community Hospital and Bethany Christian Services (both in Holland, MI).
Please consider being a part of this new and exciting ministry through your prayers and, if possible, financial support. You can connect with them and learn more about the ministry JJ has been called to in the Naples area at

Naples to Receive New Cooperative Ministry
Released 1/11/2014
Soon there will be a new cooperative ministry in the area of Naples, Italy. Waldensians, Methodists and North American Christians will be joining together in ministry with approximately 500,000 migrants living in the area – most of whom come from West and North Africa.

Why is this ministry planned as a transoceanic cooperation? Only a small part of the answer is that Italy’s economy was hit hard by the recent economic crisis and is still struggling and that Italian Protestants therefore have almost no undesignated money for new projects. A far larger part of the answer is that Waldensians and Italian Methodists know that including non-Italians and non-Europeans in their ministry team will help them see past their (and our!) natural human tendency to think that one’s own way of doing ministry is necessarily the best way. It isn’t. It’s particularly not when we’re trying to minister cross-culturally. A cross-cultural ministry team, like the one being planned, is, by its very nature, better able to overcome cultural differences.

The problems migrants face everywhere in Italy and especially in the Naples area are monumental. Let’s start with unemployment. Overall unemployment in Italy is over 12%, about 5 points more than in the USA. In fact, right now unemployment in Italy is higher than it has been in the United States since the beginning of World War II. Youth employment throughout Italy is over 40%. Unemployment in Naples is even higher. Migrant unemployment, especially for younger adults and for the many whose legal status is uncertain, is astronomic. To get a job, migrants must overcome linguistic barriers, a lack of competitive job skills, the prejudice of potential employers as well as the dearth of jobs that keeps many Italians unemployed. As a result of all these factors working together, migrants who have jobs either work illegally or have only very menial work or both.

High unemployment is not the only problem migrants have: They also face challenges getting care and additional education. Some of those extra challenges are because they don’t speak Italian, some have to do with their uncertain legal status. The North American contribution will be to appoint a missionary to evaluate which migrants need which services, to match those with needs with the services they need, and to help establish a network of individuals, congregations, and agencies that will integrate migrants into local churches, schools, and Italian life as a whole. (See the accompanying article about who the missionary will be.)

An additional goal of this project is to help migrants become active church members in Italy so that they are not merely recipients of services, but disciples pursuing the priorities of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The missionary will also identify opportunities for North Americans to use their gifts, skills and resources in ministry in ways that facilitate lasting changes in the lives and situations of the migrant community in Naples. In doing do, they will host students, mission groups, members of the American Waldensian Society and representatives from North American congregations, middle governing bodies, colleges, and seminaries.

For more information, contact Brad Lewis.

2013 Annual Year End Letter from Director, Francis Rivers
Released 12/16/2013
As you may remember we solicited from you in late Spring funding for a gathering this past September. From 19 – 22 September 2013, the American Waldensian Society (AWS) hosted a consultation in Valdese, NC. The purpose of the meeting was to identify areas of ministry that the Italian and South American branches of the Waldensian Church see as priorities for the next three to five years. The consultation proved remarkable for a number of reasons.

First was the diversity of representation. Members of the Society’s Board, representatives of La Tavola Valdese (Italy) and La Mesa Valdense (South America), and leadership of U.S.-based denominational partners of the Waldensian Church attended the meeting. This broad-based participation allowed dialogue between the various constituencies interested in preserving the heritage and promoting the current ministry of the Waldensian Church.  Visit our facebook page for photographs:

Representing La Tavola Valdese were:
• Dr. Paolo Naso, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rome (La Sapienza) and National Coordinator of the Being Church Together Program of the Federation of Italian Protestant Churches;
• Mr. Luca Pilone, church historian and staff member of the Centro Culturale Valdese in Torre Pelice.

Representing La Mesa Valdense were:
• Rev. Dr. Dario Barolìn, Pastor of the Waldensian congregration in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, professor of Hebrew Bible at the Union Seminary (I.S.E.D.E.T) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and General Secretary of AIPRAL, the Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Church in Latin America;
• Mr. Jorge Roland, Moderator of Session, the Waldensian Church, Montevideo, Uruguay.

Representing the Presbyterian Church (USA) were:
• Rev. Amgad Beblawi, Europe Area Coordinator
• Mr. Dennis Smith, Liaison for the Southern Cone of South America and Brazil.

Representing the Reformed Church in America were:
• Rev. Dr. Duncan Hanson, Area Secretary for Europe
• Dr. Valdir Franca, Supervisor of Missions in the Americas.

Representing the United Church of Christ was
• Rev. Dr. Peter Makari, Area Secretary for Europe.

Representing the Board of Directors were
• Francis Rivers, Executive Director; Brad Lewis, President; Brian Paulson, Vice-President; Carolyn Pascal Williams, Secretary/Treasurer; Sheila Young, Office Administrator; Members: Doug Ottati, Davidson College; Tara Powell, University of South Carolina; Luciano Kovacs, WSCF; John Lafferty, Waldensian Presbyterian-Valdese; Kellie Browne, John Calvin Presbyterian-Salisbury NC; Mary L Hatley, Waldensian Presbyterian-Valdese

Representing the Friends of the Society were
• Jack & Miriam Ferlino, Allentown, PA; Carol Bechtel, Western Theological Seminary-Holland MI; Mark McMeley, Orlando FL; George Trimarco, Schenectady NY; Matt Samson, Davidson College; June Rostan, Greenback TN; Kent Busman, Camp Fowler NY; Kevin Frederick, Waldensian Presbyterian-Valdese; Freddy Leger, Waldensian Presbyterian-Valdese

The second notable feature was the depth of conversation. Dr. Doug Ottati, AWS Board Member and Craig Family Distinguished Professor in Reformed Theology and Justice Ministry at Davison College, helped focus discussion on the theme of “Reconciliation.” He pressed consultation participants to ask themselves a straightforward question: How can the Society remain true to its Mission Statement of fostering “dialogue and partnership” among Waldensians in three continents (Europe, South America, North America) “in order to promote a compelling vision of Waldensian Christian witness for North America”? Thanks to the prompting of Dr. Ottati, participants in the consultation had to contend with differences that have arisen between the church in Italy and the Waldensian diasporta as the result of Waldensian immigration to South America in the 1850s and to North America in the 1890s.

During small group dialogue, members of the consultation were quick to point out limits in the current communication strategy of the Society. AWS consultation participants said it is not known how effectively to convey the Society’s sense of mission either to existing members or a broader audience. This critique refocused attention on the purpose of the Society. Is AWS an “embassy “of the Waldensian Church? If so, how does AWS address the fact that the Italian and South American branches of the churches function in different contexts and have different needs? Is the role of AWS primarily one of a funding agency or is the Society now in the position of helping U.S. colleagues receive the gifts and insights of Waldensian ministry? For example, what do we in the United States have to learn from the experiment in building inter-cultural congregations that is Being Church Together? Or what do our sisters and brothers in El Rìo de La Plata have to teach us about the importance of building strong, lay leadership for the church?

Participants in the consultation also recognized and affirmed a number of the Society’s strengths. For example, the generosity with which the Town of Valdese and members of Waldensian Presbyterian Church hosted the Society’s consultation was inspiring. The largest, most long-standing community of Waldensian heritage in the United States, Valdese, is as an invaluable asset to the work of the Society. Worthy of note also is the expertise that the Society has developed during the past decade in facilitating exchanges between partners in Europe, South America, and the United States. The diversity of attendees at the consultation in Valdese serves as testimony to the trustworthiness of the relationships that the Society has established. Facing any number of growing edges, the Society also has strengths upon which to build.

The Board of Directors will digest these details at their Spring meeting and will formulate a new strategy for the upcoming years. As always, your generous support both financially and prayerfully is always appreciated. Have a blessed Advent season.

Being Church Together
The Reformed Church in America and the American Waldensian Society will collaborate in the funding of the request by the Waldensian Church for a New Church Development/Existing Congregation Redevelopment Worker whose primary task will be the strengthening and expansion of relationships between Italian Protestant Churches and immigrants of non-European backgrounds.  This cultural mediator will be referred to as National Director of Being Church Together.  The AWS has committed $30,000 annually for five years (2010-2014) towards this project.  Please meet Paolo Naso here at the RCA website.

Newletter Archives:
AWS Newsletter: Into the Light - November 2012 Issue

AWS Newsletter: Into the Light - June 2012 Issue

AWS Updates, published August 2011

AWS Newsletter:  Into the Light - June 2008

AWS Newsletter: Into the Light - December 2007

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