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When in Rome … you’ll soon see a Mormon temple
LDS » Italian saints count it as a blessing — other church members view it as a milestone.

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"We are living in this cultural and religious environment," explains Raimondo Castellani, an area Seventy and former president of the LDS temple in neighboring Switzerland who directs the faith’s public affairs in Italy. "Mormonism is now part of that culture."

LDS officials cite "high-level" meetings they have had in recent years with various Catholic and Vatican leaders, including one with a visiting general authority and one Acerson and other religious leaders had with the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

At a glance

Italy’s Mormons by the numbers

24,443 » Members

98 » Congregations

49 » Family history centers

2 » Missions

Source: lds.org

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"It was amazing to see the openness of the Catholic Church," Acerson says. "They don’t see us taking over the world, but they recognize our church is made up of good people trying to do good things."

DeFeo, who works at the U.S. Embassy in Rome as the operations supervisor for West Europe, echoes that sentiment.

"Mormons are perceived in general as good people, honest, clean and very respectful," he says. "The Vatican has great respect for our community — has held several meetings in the past three years to consolidate the relationships and ties between the two faiths — but they do not know that we are Christians yet."

The bigger problem for the American-born faith may be its invisibility.

"The Mormons are still poorly known in Italy," says Massimo Introvigne, sociologist and director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Torino.

Introvigne’s center surveyed Italians some years ago and discovered that many believed that Mormons — who account for fewer than half a percent of the country’s populace — still practiced polygamy, though the church officially gave it up more than a century ago.

"Now Mormons are generally associated with [presidential candidate Mitt] Romney," Introvigne writes in an email. "The Romney phenomenon has increased the interest for Mormonism in the Vatican. There, the authorities look for information from scholars and from [Catholic] bishops in the United States, whose views of the Mormons are quite balanced and mostly positive. This is balanced by negative views by bishops in Latin America and elsewhere afraid of Mormon missionaries’ proselytism."

Rome has a section quite far away from the city’s heart where the Great Mosque and a large Jehovah’s Witness center are located.

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"They do not disturb the Romans and in fact the Great Mosque, one of the largest in Europe, has been converted into a tourist attraction," he says. "While a Mormon temple in the city center would disturb many, in fact the temple … will be just as invisible as the mosque is."

Introvigne points to the Catholic — or Italian — view of new religions.

When it comes to proselytizing, he says, Italians think first of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have 400,000 members in the country. Mormons, with their much smaller numbers, don’t register; even Mormon missionaries are not "well-known."

The temple may help introduce Mormons to the country, he says, as long as it is done artfully.

It could be "an opportunity to explain what 21st-century Mormonism is all about," he writes. "But my personal impression, as a social scientist, is that it will all depend on how much the Mormon factor becomes part of the Romney-Obama campaign."

Castellani, 62, says most Mormons think little or nothing about Romney and American politics, but they do care about building bridges with their neighbors — Catholics and others.

"I joined the church when I was 33 years old, and I think I know well both religions," he says. "I believe that the Catholic Church is still looking at the LDS Church with some suspicion, mostly because of misinformation. But I think there is a good dialogue."

The temple, he believes, will propel that dialogue.

Missionaries and members » Because Italy, like much of Europe, is awash in traditions and secularism, it has not been a particularly ripe area for LDS conversions.

That makes it tough for Mormon missionaries, says Acerson, because the people don’t see religion as important to their lives.

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