ROME — A history-making new temple in Rome has senior Latter-day Saint leaders making some extraordinary history of their own.
For the first time, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has placed one of its most sacred buildings in a land of the Bible, and to dedicate it this weekend, the entire First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are assembling outside the United States for what is believed to be the first time in the faith’s 188-year history.
The church announced the noteworthy gathering in a news release on Friday. President Russell M. Nelson and other leaders will dedicate the Rome Italy Temple in seven sessions on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
Full meetings anywhere outside Utah are rare for the 15 senior leaders considered prophets and seers by 16 million church members.
The First Presidency, comprising three apostles, and the Quorum of the Twelve meet together every Thursday in the 125-year-old Salt Lake Temple, but the last time every member of both bodies gathered away from church headquarters was in 2002, when they all attended a temple dedication in Nauvoo, Illinois, according to church historians.
That marked the first time the entire leadership had traveled to one place outside Salt Lake City since 1956, when church historians say they dedicated the Los Angeles Temple, the 10th temple dedicated in the church’s history.
The closest equivalent outside the United States happened 178 years ago, when nine apostles led meetings in Manchester, England, said Ron Esplin, general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers.
For Latter-day Saints, an apostolic trip to Rome raises comparisons to the ancient apostles Peter and Paul, who reportedly preached in Rome and, according to legend, were imprisoned and executed in the Eternal City by the Roman Empire in about 64 A.D.
In January, two Latter-day Saint apostles traveled to Rome and visited Mamertine Prison, the dungeon prison that reportedly held Peter and Paul before their martyrdoms.
"Now more than 2,000 years later, Elder (Ronald A.) Rasband and I are privileged to stand here as modern-day apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Elder David A. Bednar said in a short video recorded outside the prison, which abuts the Roman Forum and is about 1,000 yards from the Colosseum.
President Nelson recently filmed an introduction to a newly released virtual tour of the Rome Temple — another first for the church.
"A temple is literally a house of the Lord," he said. "Each temple is a holy sanctuary in which sacred ceremonies and ordinances of the gospel are performed by and for the living and also in behalf of the dead. We build temples so our faithful members can visit often and receive the most sacred ordinances of our faith. Before our temples are dedicated for their sacred purpose, the public is invited to see the beauty of the temple and learn about the commitments we make there with God."
Joseph Smith declared that the church he organized in 1830 was the Restored Church of Jesus Christ and included the restoration of prophets and apostles. The new Rome Temple Visitors’ Center includes a replica of Thorvaldson’s famous Christus statue — rendered in marble through digital 3-D technology — and, for the first time, replicas of his statues of the 12 ancient apostles, with Paul in place of Judas Iscariot. The originals are in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“Paul was an indomitable traveler, covering thousands of miles in 35 years of missions,” said Bible scholar D. Kelly Ogden, a retired BYU professor of ancient scripture. “Today you would need a passport and in some cases a visa to travel into Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Italy, and you would need to know Hebrew, Greek, Italian and Arabic. But then it was just one Roman world, set up for Paul to travel with open borders.”
While the modern Latter-day Saint apostles rarely travel en masse, they travel the world exhaustively in ones and twos, fulfilling their roles in the Quorum of the Twelve defined by the faith’s scriptures in 1835, when they were charged to preach as ancient apostles did and were described as twelve traveling councilors and special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world.
Research by the Church History Department found that at area conferences in many nations around the world between 1971 and 1980 were attended by two members of the First Presidency and between two and seven members of the Quorum of the Twelve, said Justin Bray, a church historian.
Prior to that, the only previously known time in history that a supermajority of Latter-day Saint apostles were together outside the United States was a formative experience for the Quorum of the Twelve, strengthening its place in the church and solidifying its responsibilities within church leadership, Esplin said.
Nine apostles met together in Manchester, England, during five days of meetings in April 1841. The meetings came at the end of a joint quorum mission to the British Isles. The First Presidency and two apostles had remained in the United States, and the quorum had one vacancy at the time.
The nine apostles returned as a proven, united group to whom Smith assigned the business of the church, Esplin said. Their mission brought nearly 4,000 new members into the fledgling church, and those apostles formed the foundation of church leadership for the next half century, including future church presidents Brigham Young, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff.
Over the next four days in Rome, the church’s leaders will not meet as a Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as they do every Thursday in the Salt Lake Temple to pray and counsel together and consider the direction of the church. They will return to Salt Lake City by midweek and resume their regular Thursday schedule.
As in Rome, the 2002 Nauvoo Temple dedication had unique meaning for Latter-day Saints. The church broadcast the dedication to meetinghouses worldwide on June 27, 2002 — the 158th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s murder. The temple was built on the site of the original Nauvoo Temple, the faith’s second, which the church abandoned and sold in the 1840s as it fled persecution. The original temple was damaged by arson and a major tornado and demolished in 1865. The church reacquired the land in 1937.