ROME — More than a decade after it was announced and two millennia after the apostles Peter and Paul preached and died here, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened the doors Monday to the first visitors at the new Rome Italy Temple.
They described it as stunning, exquisite and magnificent.
"I've seen it under construction for two years now, but walking through it today was extraordinary, a very special experience," said Marcello De Vito, president of the Rome City Council. "It will certainly improve the architecture of our city."
Elder David A. Bednar and Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led tours for De Vito, journalists and other political leaders.
"This is a worldwide religion," Elder Bednar said. "We have more than 16 million members and the church is recognized and established in over 170 nations, so it’s only a matter of time before we have temples in most major cities in the world, but it is of particular significance to have a temple in Rome, the Eternal City."
The tours began under dark clouds. They ended with visitors emerging to find blue skies and sunshine glistening in the sheen of morning rain that remained on the cobblestone and marble steps of what Elder Rasband described as "our own little version of an Italian piazza," or plaza, between the temple and the Rome Temple Visitors' Center.
"I'm very proud to be here today. It's been a very special moment for me and for our municipality," said Giovanni Caudo, president of Rome's Third Municipality, an administrative subdivision of Rome. The temple sits on a hill in the subdivision, which has 200,000 residents, and also is known as Monte Sacro, or sacred mountain.
"Absolutely impressive," Caudo added. "It's a very incredible building. I'm probably most impressed by the use of this building. It's very different from other Christian churches. This is not one big hall. Instead, this represents a journey, a personal journey of progress. It's very different from how most Italian people worship."
During a news conference after the tours, Elder Rasband told 40 journalists he had immersed himself in the captivity epistles of the New Testament, the books related to Rome's history in the early Christian church, including the preaching and imprisonment, and eventually the apparent martyrdoms, of Peter and Paul, two of Christ's apostles.
"I'm just very humbled to be here to think that we're walking in the footsteps of those original apostles," Elder Rasband said. "I'm thinking of the blessings that we enjoy in our day, and how different it was for the early Christians here in Rome."
The visitors' center includes statues of Peter, Paul and 10 other apostles standing behind Christ in an arresting window display that glows brightly each night.
"This is like a beacon," said Andrea Cordani, an Amazon executive and president of the church's Verona Stake. Cordani served as a translator for De Vito on Monday. "This specific room attracts you at night. You want to be at the Savior's feet. In our Catholic tradition, people go up and touch statues. I understand that tradition now."
Journalists asked church leaders about their relationship with the Catholic Church. "Should the pope be worried" now that there is a Latter-day Saint temple in Rome, CNN's Delia Gallagher asked.
"We're friends together with the Catholic Church," Elder Rasband said. "I've been with an official delegation of our church to the Vatican. We are friendly in every respect."
Catholic leaders attended the temple's groundbreaking in 2010 and some will attend the open house, he said. He and others also pointed to joint Latter-day Saint-Catholic humanitarian and refugee-relief projects in Italy and throughout Europe.
De Vito said religious pluralism is an important tenet in Rome, home to the oldest Hebrew community in Europe and its largest Muslim mosque.
"Living together is a characteristic of our city, and that is confirmed by the presence of this building in the city," De Vito said.
Caudo said, "Rome is Catholic and it is Muslim and it is Jewish and now it is this church, too. The most important role for the city is not to be the capital of one state; it is the capital of religion in the world."
Elder Massimo De Feo, a General Authority Seventy and native Italian, told journalists that Latter-day Saints consider temples to be the house of the Lord Jesus Christ.
"As the center for Christianity for millennia, Rome couldn’t be without a temple dedicated to Jesus Christ," he said. "Rome is also the Eternal City. We needed to have a temple in the Eternal City because it is a symbol of eternity. The temple is the place we learn that life is eternal."
The temple, the church's 13th in Europe, was announced in 2008 and construction began in 2011. Construction delays are now forgotten.
“A couple of times I was discouraged, but we were sure the Lord was preparing us for something big. And so it is,” said Silvia Dominici, a church member and school teacher who toured the temple with her husband Sunday night as they and others prepared to lead tours for special visitors on Monday.
"It’s emotional for me," added Dominici, a member who lives five hours away by car in Taranto. "They told me it was nice, but this is another thing altogether."
She will return with her children and other family members on Feb. 2 during the public open house, which begins Jan. 28 and will run through Feb. 16, excluding Sundays. The temple will be dedicated in multiple sessions from March 10-12.
The three-story, 40,000-square-foot temple sits on a 15-acre site that includes three other buildings. It sits atop a piazza with a terrace of stone steps and fountains that lead down to the visitors center where a striking glass front displays a Christus statue and statues of Christ’s 12 original apostles.
On one side of the plaza is a meetinghouse. On the other side is a family history center and housing for people who come to the temple from far-flung locations.
The temple's design echoes aspects of the ancient city. A motif created by Michelangelo for the Piazza del Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill in the 1500s is woven into carpets and displayed in floors, ceilings and railings throughout the building.
Roman umbrella pines and 150-year-old olive trees native to the site were preserved in the construction of the complex. Olive leaves are another motif used throughout the temple.
"When we are done today," Elder Rasband told Italian journalists early in the tour he led, "I hope you will say, 'That's a Roman temple.'"
He said it will become "a destination temple" for Latter-day Saints around the world.
The temple's exterior is granite with decorative glazing. The interior includes Italian granite and chandeliers made in Verona, Spanish marble, African wood and American stained-glass art.
Elder Rasband shared information with journalists about the ordinances of baptism, endowment and sealing that happen in temples.
Dominici stood in silence at the feet of the Christus statue for more than a minute on Sunday evening.
"I don't know if Jesus Christ looks like this, but this is how I imagine him, with his arms open toward me," she said as a tear swept down her left cheek. "It makes me feel his immense love. It's hard to explain what you feel when you are facing the idea of facing the Lord."