There was tenderness and reverence in his voice as Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), said the Mormon temple being built in Rome, Italy, “uniquely, is being built in one of the most historic locations in the world, a city where the ancient apostles Peter and Paul preached the gospel of Christ and where each was martyred.”
Monson, considered a prophet by Mormons, addressed millions of members around the world in a biannual satellite broadcast in April. Recalling the Rome groundbreaking on an overcast day in October 2010, attended by Italian senator Lucio Malan and Rome’s vice-mayor Giuseppe Ciardi along with many Italian members of the LDS church, he said that as the choir sang, “one felt as though heaven and earth were joined in a glorious hymn of praise and gratitude to Almighty God. Tears could not be restrained.”
Why was this occasion so special in the heart of the Church’s leader? What is it about a temple — any Mormon temple and specifically the Rome temple — that causes Mormons from around the world to celebrate its construction? Anyone who’s visited Utah or parts of California, Arizona, Idaho — or anywhere Mormons live — has seen the practical brick chapels that Mormons worship in every Sunday. So what different role do the 134 temples that now dot the earth play?
The Rome Temple
Latter-day Saint missionaries were present in Italy as early as 1850, a mere twenty years after the Church was first established by Joseph Smith in upstate New York, but it wasn’t until 1965 that missionary work there started in earnest after receiving authorization from the Italian government. Today, there are about 24,000 members in Italy, comprising over a hundred congregations. Those congregations each have a chapel in which to hold their Sunday sacrament services and scriptural lessons, but until now Italian members have had to travel to Bern, Switzerland, Madrid, Spain, or Frankfurt, Germany, for ceremonies that require a temple.
The Rome temple will be part of a 15-acre complex that will include a multifunctional meetinghouse, a Visitors’ Center and a Family History Center and patron housing, all surrounded by gardens. The temple itself will be closed on Sundays, since members attend congregational services at their own chapels on Sundays. Mormons from throughout Italy and the world will visit the Rome Temple at their own convenience, spending as much time there as they’d like and visiting as frequently as they’d like.
As with all temples, the Rome Temple will be designed to look like a building set apart from the world, a place for contemplation and peace. In keeping with tradition, it will be white with a gold statue of the angel Moroni (the angel who introduced Joseph Smith to the Book of Mormon) holding a trumpet, announcing the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world. (For more details about the Rome Temple complex, visit the temple website.)
While the thousands of LDS chapels follow templates for ease of replication and cost, each temple is a custom design and construction. Typically, a temple will use an architectural style that reflects its specific locale, or special artwork will be commissioned. These details about the Rome temple will be revealed when it, like previous ones, has an “open house” period once it is fully constructed. The public can tour the interior of the temple and learn about its purposes. The building itself — its layout, decoration and purpose — is not secret.
After the dedication of the temple, only members of the LDS church in good standing will be able to enter the temple building (although the general public will be welcomed in other areas of the complex.) To understand the reasons for this seemingly exclusionary policy, we need to look at the purpose of the holy temples.
The purpose of temples
The Old Testament says that starting in the days of Moses, the temple (or tabernacle) was the resting place for the Arc of the Covenant, the sacred site of ritual sacrifices and a gathering place for the faithful. (Although much of the Pentateuch details temple practices, see Exodus 40 for an introduction to temple uses of Moses’ time.) Through the time of Jesus, the temple remained the center of cultural, educational and sacrificial activity. The temple is a core tool of reference and practice for Jesus throughout the Gospels — from Mary and Joseph’s visit to the temple to have Jesus circumcised and “present him to the Lord,” (Luke 2: 22) to Jesus’ referencing the temple rituals of the Feast of the Tabernacles for his “Light of the World” and “Living Water” sermons in John 7 and 8.
The temple that the Savior visited during His life was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and has never since been rebuilt by the Jews. Much of Christianity believes that it doesn’t need to be rebuilt: as a place where burnt offerings and blood sacrifices of animals were made for individual sins and for the sins of the nation of Israel, such a building is no longer considered necessary because Christ himself paid our sin debt in full on the cross by shedding His own blood for us.
In addition, the ancient temple served as a place for the faithful to commit themselves to God, to learn about His will for them and to be taught the doctrine of their prophets. It was the place for a nation of believers to become tethered to each other and to their God through ordinances and sacred ceremonies, such as ritual washings, anointing and clothing ceremonies (also summarized in Exodus 40). Latter-day Saints believe that the role of the temple as a place to make covenants with God is not outdated.
Mormons believe that in Corinthians 15:29, Paul’s reference to those who are “baptized for the dead” refers to a ritual that existed in the early days of the church but is no longer widely acknowledged. They believe there is still a place for baptisms for the dead, along with other vicarious practices such as sealings (marriages), endowing the gift of the Holy Ghost and ordaining men to the Priesthood. (For a more in depth analysis of the Mormon perspective on ordinances, read Dennis B. Neuenschwander’s Ordinances and Covenants.)
The first time a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attends a temple, they attend to perform ordinances for themselves. This typically happens when a young man or woman goes on a mission for the Church or gets married. Every other time a member of the Church attends the temple, they perform the ordinances “for and in behalf of” someone who is deceased. Much of the Doctrine and Covenants, the collection of revelations received by Joseph Smith starting in 1823, is about the restoration of these ordinances in modern times and the need to build temples in which to perform those ordinances.
A Mormon’s participation in sacred temple ordinances accomplishes two divine goals: First, it offers a way to know God through interactive learning. For, “in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:20) Second, it links generations of families together in an eternal unit of souls committed to God. Thomas S. Monson referenced these purposes in his remarks about the Rome Temple when he concluded, “… This, the Eternal City, will receive ordinances eternal in nature in a holy house of God. I express my undying gratitude to my Heavenly Father for the temple now being built in Rome and for all of our temples, wherever they are. Each one stands as a beacon to the world, an expression of our testimony that God, our Eternal Father, lives, that He desires to bless us and, indeed, to bless His sons and daughters of all generations. Each of our temples is an expression of our testimony that life beyond the grave is as real and as certain as is our life here on earth. I so testify.”