Roberta ventured out on a rainy night in Rome at the invitation of a friend to hear some lively music and hoping to hear what evangelical Christians really believe. In her home country of Italy—where cultural Catholicism is deeply ingrained—the Name Gesù (Jesus) is well known even if the Biblical Gospel isn’t.
Roberta arrived at the Noi Festival with Franklin Graham feeling guilt over some past decisions, but she left the Palazzo dello Sport with that burden lifted. And through the saving power of Jesus Christ, so did hundreds of other people who had flocked to the arena Nov. 4-5.
The historic Festival drew more than 18,000 people, with more than 1,000 of them making decisions to receive Christ as Savior.
“I’m a Catholic,” said Roberta, “but I came here tonight at the invitation of a friend to know what evangelical churches believe. During the prayer, I felt something inside me—the forgiveness of sins—and I decided to come down.”
Each night, the arena shook as thousands of Italians clapped and sang along with the likes of musical headliners Kari Jobe and Michael W. Smith, as well as the Tommy Coomes Band, Dennis Agajanian and Italian worship leaders Lidia Genta and her husband, Stefano Rigamonti. Both Jobe and Smith were brought to tears by the rousing participation of their Italian audiences.
And both nights, Franklin brought the same straightforward Gospel message that burned across the Roman world 2,000 years ago.
“When the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God, sin entered the world,” Franklin told the audience. “And it has infected the human race like a cancer of the soul. All of us were born into sin. And that’s why God sent His Son, Jesus Christ. The Bible says, ‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’” (Romans 6:23, KJV).
One sinner Franklin talked about was a dishonest tax collector named Zacchaeus, who, as recounted in Luke 19, climbed a tree in Jericho in order to see Jesus above the crowd as He passed through. Like Zacchaeus, “All of us have sinned, all of us have fallen short of God’s glory,” Franklin said.
“Jesus was calling Zacchaeus, and He’s calling some of you tonight.”
The Festival marked the first time a united evangelistic event has been held in Rome. Billy Graham had always wanted to preach the Gospel there, Franklin told BGEA staff the morning of Nov. 5, but he never had that opportunity.
More than 150 churches participated in months of praying and planning for the Noi Festival—an unprecedented show of unity among the small evangelical population in Italy—and more than 700 churches cooperated on some level to support the event.
According to a 2023 poll by Paris-based Ipsos, Italy has seen a drop in religious identification from earlier studies, with 61% identifying as Roman Catholic (down from more than 80% two decades ago). Numerous studies conclude that Italian evangelicals number only between 1% and 2%.
“It can be really discouraging in Italy because you share the Gospel, and often people are not interested or don’t respond,” said Danny Pasquale, president of the Italian Evangelical Bible Institute in Rome. But he also sees evangelistic opportunity as people become disillusioned by self-seeking and pleasure.
Lidia Genta, an Italian vocalist who also teaches music to young people, told Decision that she sees “a deep rejection of religion in general and a search for personal autonomy. This is good in a way because you’re not blindly following some religion. But it’s definitely hard to follow the concept of denying yourself and following Christ. And so there’s a big need that they will know the Jesus who truly sets people free.”
On the closing night of the Festival, as hundreds of people left their seats in response to the invitation, two men stood and listened as Franklin emphasized the Gospel message he had just preached and how God, through faith in Christ, forgives past, present and future sins and promises an eternity with Him.
As Francesco and Alessandro stood there, eyes glistening with tears, Alessandro buried his face in his hands for a moment as if to hold back a flood of emotion.
“Tonight I accepted Jesus as my Savior,” Alessandro said. “I am married, I have a wife, four children. I was not in my home for a very long time, but now my life is changed. Last week, I attended an evangelical church—and in a week, everything has changed.”
Standing nearby, Francesco smiled broadly as he explained that he had other plans, but ultimately felt drawn to attend the Noi Festival after his mother, a Christian, encouraged him. Francesco invited Alessandro to come with him, and Alessandro brought his wife and children.
“We have seen a lot of things and now we feel lighter,” Francesco said. “We feel lighter now that we have accepted Jesus. If I can say something, I want to invite you to believe in Jesus because it’s beautiful.” ©2023 BGEA
Photo: Thomas J. Petrino/©2023 BGEA