ROME — Moments before President Russell M. Nelson departed the world capital of Christianity on Monday, he bestowed added significance on three landmark days surrounding the dedication ceremonies for the Rome Italy Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"This is a hinge point in the history of the church. Things are going to move forward at an accelerated pace, of which this is a part," he said, later adding, "The church is going to have an unprecedented future, unparalleled; we're just building up to what's ahead now."
Besides capping a weekend that included President Nelson's formal audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, the statement also recalled his zestful November declaration that church members should eat their vitamin pills and get their rest because the church's future is exciting.
The energy was dynamic on the temple grounds on Monday's light gray Roman morning. All 15 of the church's apostle-leaders bustled around, clearly savoring the only time in the church's history that all of its senior leadership has been together outside the United States.
They uniformly expressed astonishment at and appreciation for the opportunity to have all of them join the church's president at the dedication of the Rome Temple, the church's first in a New Testament city.
President Nelson typically is accompanied by one apostle at a temple dedication. Occasionally, the church president brings more. He rarely takes all, and never before had all been together away from American soil in the faith's 188-year history.
"We know that two former-day apostles, Peter and Paul, were here," said Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve, "and then to have modern-day apostles here, all of us, is just a moving experience, in some ways paying homage to them and homage to the gospel that we all preach."
They apostles greeted each other, conducted media interviews and took pictures with their spouses and each other in and around the visitors center and in front of statues of Christ and twelve of his ancient apostles.
Two experts on Latter-day Saints described the last of those images, shared from President Nelson's Instagram and Twitter accounts, as a symbol that the church has a growing place among world religions.
One said a Latter-day Saint temple in Rome symbolized that the faith has partly arrived as a global church.
"It's an interesting example of the expansion of Mormonism across the world," said Douglas Davies, professor of the study of religion at Durham University in England, in a telephone interview.
President Nelson's papal visit on Saturday was also significant, said Davies, who has a license to officiate in the Anglican Church.
"In a sense, that says everything, doesn't it, in terms of the church's desire to be regarded as a mainstream part of Christianity," he said. "Having a temple in Rome is part of the long-going discussion of whether Mormons are Christians."
Davies said the photo with the statues identified "the apostles of the latter days with apostles of the former days."
In fact, President Nelson's tweet said, "The Lord stands at the head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As modern-day apostles of Jesus Christ, the message we share today is the same that apostles shared long ago — that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that this is his church."
During the Rome Temple dedication, said Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve, "We have the modern Peter dedicating this house of the Lord for purposes which Peter and Paul declared two millennia ago." Elder Uchtdorf, who was sustained as an apostle in 2004, is reflective of the international nature of the church. He was born in Czechoslovakia and his family joined the church in Germany when he was a boy in 1947.
The church obtained permission to make the first replicas of the statues of the ancient apostles created by a contemporary of Joseph Smith, Rome-trained Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, who also sculpted the Christus statue used here and in many other Latter-day Saint visitor centers.
"This is what the Restoration is, the Restoration of the original church Jesus Christ established, and it’s built upon prophets and apostles," said Eric Huntsman, a professor of Ancient Scripture and coordinator of the Ancient New Eastern Studies Program at Brigham Young University. "To have the modern apostles stand with the statues of the ancient 12 apostles says, 'this is the church of Jesus Christ.' Today we say, 'of Latter-day Saints,' but it is the same church.
"Having all of the apostles in Rome is a powerful symbol that the Restored Church is the same church of Jesus Christ that our Lord established in the meridian of time."
President Nelson's papal audience on Saturday was of major interest Monday to the New York correspondent of a national newspaper, La Stampa, who interviewed him and his counselors in the First Presidency, Presidents Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring in English in the temple's front lobby.
The reporter also interviewed Sister Wendy Nelson and Sister Kristen Oaks.54 comments on this story
The dedication ceremonies for the Rome Temple end Tuesday with the final two sessions. President Oaks will preside. Monday's speakers in two sessions were Presidents Nelson, Oaks and Eyring and Elders Jeffrey R. Holland, Uchtdorf, David A. Bednar and Ulisses Soares.
During their interview before they left the Rome Temple for the airport, President Ballard, 90, said the apostles were honored to all take part in the dedication and that he didn't expect that to happen again in his lifetime.
"I wouldn't be too sure about that," said President Nelson, 94.
"I'm going to live a long time because we have a lot of work to do," President Ballard said.
"We've got a lot of work to do," President Nelson said.