Simone Tse is an Italian anomaly. Although he grew up in Bologna, his parents are both Chinese immigrants who owned a restaurant and grocery store. His clothing boasts a keen understanding of European fashion but he says he wants to go to Texas more than anything. When he's not studying for his pharmaceutical degree, he works as a professional basketball referee and a translator for Chinese and English-speaking tourists. Most paradoxical to his culture, he is a born-again Christian.
Tse grew up the nephew of a Catholic priest in the birthplace of Catholicism. But Tse didn't know who Jesus was until two years ago, when American missionaries came to Bologna. Though unique in his multi-faceted culture, Tse once represented the majority of young Italian adults who grow up in a country full of religious relics but have never heard the story of Jesus Christ, much less cracked open a Bible. Unlike most of his classmates at the University of Bologna, Tse now understands the significance to the paintings and sculptures that pervade his culture and narrate stories of a widely unknown God.
Italy boasts many historical Christian relics. Michelangelo, the Italian-born artist, still lives on in his many masterpieces depicting biblical heroes and stories, the majority of which reside in Italy. His biblically inspired works are neighbored by those of da Vinci, Brunelleschi and Raffaelo, not to mention the Roman Coliseum, the prison of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and the home of the Pope.
It is no surprise that the U.S. Department of State's economic report for Italy lists tourism as the country's number one industry. But it would be naïve to assume that the billions of dollars are brought in by evangelical Christians excited to see ancient forms of sharing the gospel through art. It is no secret that the spiritual connection has been all but drained from the art and architecture that now brings the country more profit than pilgrimage.
The same art and ancient sites that feed tourism, and by extension, the Italian economy, also starve a generation of its own experience with belief. Global Connections, an online resource for country profiles, reports that 88 percent of the almost 58 million people living in Italy claim to be Catholic. Only 5 percent claim atheism or agnosticism.
But after four months of researching this claim, I found the statistics vastly incorrect for the younger generation, if not flipped entirely.
Between January and May, I lived among Italian students and conducted a small-scale research study of my own. I spent time questioning students from the University of Bologna and the University of Florence. I randomly questioned more than 35 Italian students from different backgrounds and fields of study. Though the test group was small, not one of the students I questioned claimed to know who Jesus Christ was or is. The paintings hang in the museums as Ebenezers raised to a past God, currently unknown.
The majority of students I talked to claimed atheism. A few had ideas that a god may exist somewhere, and a small number said they believed the teachings found in Buddhism.
But amidst the seemingly growing disbelief, small groups of Evangelical Christians gather in many cities, encouraging each other to continue in their faith. Andrea Giorgi pastors a 200-member, non-denominational Christian church called Logos, in Florence.
Giorgi belongs to Agape Italia, an Italian arm of CRU, formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, the same mission group that presented the gospel to Simone Tse and lead him to faith in Christ. Giorgi uses American missionaries to reach out to his fellow Italians because right now, there aren't enough Italian Christians to bring their message to their own people.
Giorgi estimates Christ-professing Christians make up a mere 1 percent of the Italian population. Giorgi, a native Florentine, moved to California for nine years to attend seminary and learn how to pastor a church. Giorgi has done what few Italians conceive of doing after establishing themselves in America--he returned to Italy.
Cristiano De Chirico works alongside Giorgi as student pastor at Logos. Also a native Florentine, De Chirico grew up in a household of Christian believers.
"Italy is a Christian place on papers, but the reality is it's not," he said. "Evangelical churches are 0.7 percent here. It's not easy to be Christian here, it's not easy to believe in Jesus. People don't understand you. Students believe okay, this is your truth, this is my truth, that's okay. But that's bad because Jesus is not one way, Jesus is the way."
De Chirico said much of the problem begins with bitterness towards the Catholic church and Italian politics, two threads that are inextricably intertwined.
"The Catholic church is strong here, the pope is strong here, [but] he's also a politician, not only a spiritual leader and most of the people hate the church because they hate not the Bible but the institution of the church," De Chirico said.
John Farina, an international expert in religious studies, says the Catholic Church still holds power over the Italian population, mostly through its devotion to the family. In 2007, the church worked to kill same-sex marriage legislation. When movements to support the series of laws that would have given rights to homosexual couples began gaining momentum, the Catholic Church rose up and squashed the bills by appealing to Italians' sense of family.
Ultimately, the Catholic Church gave Italians the choice of supporting the institution of family or of promoting gay unity, Farina said. The bill was dissolved by 2008. An older generation of people that represent their families aren't yet willing to release the ideals of family that are associated with Christianity. But they're not willing to claim faith either, Farina said.
Although Italian political decisions often are driven by the remnants of the country's faith, Italians lack one of its key components--hope.
"There is no hope here, and it's really sad," said Jennifer Carvalho Zepparelli, the only Christian in her high school. "It was really lonely, and I got made fun of."
Although Zepparelli represents a small fraction of Italian youths who profess Christianity, she also represents a large percentage of her peers who intend to move abroad, hopefully to America, as soon as she gets the chance.
But Farina sees more commonalities between American and Italian Christianity than might be apparent at first.
"Church is a choice, we see this among young people in the United States and in Europe," he said. "We see more similarity than there would be in older generations. Now, there's much more willingness to say I'm spiritual, not religious."
And as more Italian students say no to faith, the country's historic cathedrals continue to cancel masses because no one attends.
Farina emphasized a distinct commonality amongst most students I spoke with across Italy. The country's youth are open to the ideas of their own spirituality but almost unanimously oppose ideas of organized religion and church.
Although they claim it offers enlightenment, the idea of personal spirituality seems to leave many lacking. Stefania Mosna, a law student at Bologna University echoed the response of many of her fellow students when asked 'where do you find your hope?'
"I have no hope," she said. "I hope in nothing."