Dora Bognandi: Dialogue with an Adventist dedicated to religious freedom in Italy

The island of Sicily has the highest concentration of Adventists in Italy, and is the homeland for Dora Bognandi, a fourth-generation Seventh-day Adventist. She was born in 1949, in Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Determined yet humble, Dora is known for her courage and conviction throughout the country. She embodies what religious liberty is and should be. Currently she is working for the “Fondazione Adventum” (Adventist Foundation), a social branch of the church.

Mrs. Bognandi was baptized in 1966 and has been working for the Adventist Church since 1985. In 1992, she became an assistant to Ignazio Barbuscia, who at that time served as director of the Religious Liberty Department. In 1999, she was elected director of the Religious Liberty and Communication Departments of the Italian Union of Seventh-day Adventists. She is married to Pastor Adelio Pellegrini, and they have two sons, both working for the church.

Mrs. Bognandi, what made you become a Seventh-day Adventist?

I didn’t experience a conversion from another religion or denomination. The Adventist Church has always been my family. However, in my youth I went through a stage of indifference toward the Christian faith. As it often happens, one must get knocked down, before one can look up. I did have my knock down—the time when I lost my daughter. It was a specially difficult moment in my life. Those tragic days made me realize how deeply I needed God and His love. I also realized how important it is to have church friends around me. Without the help of God and that of my extended family, I couldn’t have pulled myself up.

What attracted you to accept the position of director of religious liberty and communication for the Italian Union? What is your function in these areas?

My work consists in representing the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the Italian society. Despite my limitations, I feel a bit like an ambassador of the church to the community at large. I also want my church to know the best of Italian culture and religious traditions so that as Adventists we can adequately communicate our biblical faith and unique mission. The Department of Religious Liberty brings me in contact with the religious, political, and cultural institutions of Italy. My assignment is to ensure that church members have their rights and privileges—of belief, worship, conscience, and witness—protected and honored. I work also to help church members respect other people’s rights and beliefs. As a communication director for the church, I am responsible for editing our monthly magazine Il Messaggero Avventista (similar to The Adventist Review), and for caring for two web bulletins—BIA, with news aimed at Adventist members, and AND, written for non-Adventist readers. I must also guard the good name of our denomination by disseminating news from and about the Adventist Church.

Why is religious liberty important to you?

Because it is the foundation of all liberties. Religious liberty is the right to believe or not to believe in God according to the dictates of one’s conscience, without any external interference. I believe that this is a fundamental human right. The Italian Constitution guarantees this freedom, as it also guarantees the right to change one’s religion and to witness for the same. A commitment to religious freedom helps me to stand above every political and social organization and speak of a God to whom all social orders are subject, and in whom one can find life’s meaning and purpose. Religious freedom helps me to speak of a righteous God or of an ideal that I hold. It helps me to respect people who think differently from me and work with them for the benefit of humankind.

As a woman, what special insights can you bring to the responsibilities you hold?

Perhaps a particular insight and interest for other people, a feature more commonly found in women than in men. Perhaps also the caring quality that comes easily to a woman is helpful in the work I do.

Italy is predominantly Catholic. What is the standing of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in your country in terms of government rights, recognition, and freedom?

The Italian Adventist Church has had pastors who worked with distinction for the Religious Liberty Department, like Gianfranco Rossi and Ignazio Barbuscia. Thanks to them our church secured a special agreement with the Italian State, which was turned into law in 1988. For the first time in the world’s history (in a country where Roman Catholicism has its Holy See), a law was passed that made special provisions so that Adventists could observe the Sabbath on Saturday in the workplace, at school, the university, and so on. We owe this extraordinary result mainly to the Sabbath observance of so many faithful church members. The 1988 special agreement includes also the following points: official recognition of Adventist ministers; acceptance of our stand on not bearing arms and substitution of community service instead; chaplaincy services by Adventist pastors in hospitals and jails; and legal acceptance of weddings officiated by Adventist ministers.

Tell us something about the current status of the Adventist Church in Italy. What are the major trends and challenges?

As in other western countries, our church in Italy is affected by secularism and moral relativism. But we also face a still greater challenge: introversion—that is, a tendency to focus on our own problems and needs instead of reaching out to meet the needs of people around us. The world is changing at an impressive speed, and militant religious fundamentalism is on the rise. We have to bring to this world what we define as the “Present Truth,” that is the truth aimed at the particular needs of our time.

What is the public image of our church in the country? What are we known for?

In Italy, we are a minority among minorities. We have only 7,000 baptized members in a population of almost 58 million. It isn’t an easy matter to attract notice because of the very obvious presence of the Catholic Church and the limited human and financial resources at our disposal. However, the law gives us the opportunity to access public funds called Otto per Mille (Eight per Thousand) collected from state tax revenues. This gives us the opportunity to do much good and provides us with a lot of visibility, because every year the name of the Adventist Church is found on more than 30 million income tax returns. As a result, we receive funds that we use for social, humanitarian, charitable, and cultural purposes. We have nine radio stations in Italy, we make use of internet sites, and of course we work through ADRA and other public initiatives.

What gives you the greatest satisfaction in your work?

I feel the most satisfaction when I can solve a problem faced by one of our members related to Sabbath observance. In spite of the law, some employers still expect Adventists to work on Sabbath. I love to see the joy on the face of our believers when the problem has been solved. I am satisfied, too, when the secular media make reference to our stance on religious matters or human rights violations or when non-Adventist religious circles praise an Adventist doctrine they had harshly criticized before. If our church is appreciated and makes a good impression, I am extremely happy.

Which Adventist doctrine has been specially appreciated in Italy?

Not just a doctrine, but several. For instance, health reform. Once we were much criticized for our positions with regard to tobacco, alcohol, and harmful drugs. Today we are more and more appreciated by other church leaders, and we are also imitated. Other examples are the tithe principle and our way of observing the day of rest.

How are you able to combine and keep balance between your various roles as wife, mother, and church leader?

This is one of my greatest concerns. It is not easy to completely devote yourself to your work and then carve out some time for you and your family. You can make it only if you enjoy the love and cooperation of your family. I thank the Lord because my family has been a blessing in this respect.

You have a busy life. How do you keep your connection with God alive?

Very often I wake up at two or three in the morning and start reading my Bible. I talk to God, and I tell Him what in that moment happens to cross my mind. I unburden myself to Him. Then I go to sleep. God gives me the strength that I need. Sometimes I feel a burden because of my responsibilities and my sense of inadequacy for the great task I have. But then the words of the Scriptures come always to my mind, and I feel comforted and motivated again.

What would you tell one of our readers who may be thinking of devoting his or her talents to work for the Adventist Church?

Working for the church is the most beautiful thing that can happen in one’s life. You are off on an adventure whose horizons become wider and wider as you discover new destinations all the way through.

Roberto Vacca is a radio producer for the network of Adventist radio stations in Italy “La Voce della Speranza.” His email address: r.vacca@libero.it.

Mrs. Dora Bognandi may be contacted through her email address: d.bognandi@avventisti.it or by writing to the Department of Religious Liberty, c/o Unione Italiana Chiese Avventiste; Lungotevere Michelangelo 7; 00192 Rome; Italy.