Many years ago, when he was already a successful rocker, Francesco Lorenzi didn’t even want to hear about Church and priests. “They wear undertaker’s shoes and have bad breath! And then… what’s the ‘sequela’?”. This is how he answered his mother one evening at dinner. In fact, in Italy, hardly anyone knows that word, which means “to follow Jesus”. Using it to address those who do not attend church sounds almost ridiculous. And even Francesco’s mother probably hesitated to give him the leaflet where the “sequela” was named: it was an invitation to a meeting for young people in their home-town parish, not far from Venice, Italy.
Nevertheless, he remembers today, “there was something inside me saying ‘go!'”. He had realised his childhood dreams. He was a successful musician. He travelled the world with the friends of his rock band, ‘The sun eats the hours’, as he told an audience of priests many years ago, on 6 February 2013. The Pontifical Council for Culture had invited ‘The Sun’ (that’s their new name) to the Vatican for its plenary assembly on ’emerging youth cultures’. It was the first time the plenary assembly of that dicastery hosted a rock concert.
Francesco did not hide anything from cardinals and bishops from all the world. Before that dinner at his mother’s house, the young parishes people were ‘losers’, in his opinion. He too, in addition, embodied the stereotype of the ‘damn rocker’ devoted to sex, drugs and rock&roll. But he was tormented by one question: ‘Why am I not happy? What in my life is not working?”.
The meeting announced in the leaflet was the first of a series. Francesco did not miss a single one. It would take a long time to recount everything that happened afterwards to ‘The Sun’, including participating in many World Youth Days as a Christian rock band. “From this point of view, my whole life has been a big surprise”, he says today, 15 years later, in a very inspired tone; “the Lord used everything I had learned as a musician to build his kingdom.”
One of the bricks of God’s kingdom is “La Gloria” (“The Glory”), the first Italian Christian music record company, just founded by him and Andrea Marco Ricci, a lawyer from Bologna. In fact, as the website www.lagloria.it explains, “music is a powerful tool for bringing His values to everyone, for making feel His presence, for bearing witness to the Truth, for building community, for praying, for celebrating, for encouraging encounters with others’. But first, “we need to give dignity to those who make Christian music”.
The problem, in fact, is that in Italy – which is said to be the country where everyone sings – Christian music does not enjoy a good reputation. The Italian song tradition has produced singers and songs famous all over the world. But this singing tradition has little to do with the Catholic tradition, apart from rare exceptions. Forty years ago, a Franciscan friar, Giuseppe Cionfoli, took part in the famous Sanremo festival, winning fourth place in the final. His song, “Solo Grazie” (“Only thanks”), was a prayer where the refrain said “then I wrote you only thanks for giving me life, I wrote you love, only love, yes, you are my Lord…”.
This remained an isolated episode. In the meantime, the artistic level of the Sanremo Festival – organised by Italian state TV – has gone downhill. It has become an event where the generally poor songs are no longer the main ingredient. However, given the still high TV audience ratings, every year the organisers use that stage to launch one-sided messages about issues such as the fight against racism and LGBT agenda.
Religious themes have not disappeared completely from the Sanremo festival. During the last edition, in February 2022, the singer Achille Lauro, in order to make people talk about him, staged a kind of baptism during his performance.
“I want to hope that it is our fault, since we were not capable of understanding the message”, is the merciful comment of Fabrizio Venturi, the artistic director of another festival held in Sanremo in the same days: the first Christian Music Festival Sanremo 2022, conceived with the explicit aim of “realising a creative marriage between song and praise to God”.
Such news received a lot of attention in newspapers and on TV, even if many hastily attached to it the label of “anti-Sanremo”. “This is absolutely untrue,” Venturi replies, “it is not our business to judge what other artists do well or badly. What we do is evangelise through songs”.
VaticanNews, the Vatican’s official news website, dedicated 20 hours of live radio coverage to the event, culminating in the final triumph of Brother Vinicius, Brazilian, who won with the song “Vale la pena” (“It is worth”). The runner-up, Shoek, is a young rapper rescued from dramatic history of family abandonment, alcohol, drugs and prostitution.
Venturi says it was not easy to select the 24 participants. “I had serious inner problems! There were at least 50 or 60 high-level songs, and I wanted to range between various genres: rock, rap, swing, pop…”. But he also emphasises that “I first listened to the song, then I considered out who the author was”. His festival is really “a festival of songs, not a festival of characters”. The commercial music system, on the other hand, “builds characters from nothing behind whom there is neither training nor quality”. Italian Christian music has “great authors and very beautiful voices”, Venturi is sure. And now, after the festival, “I get almost 10 phone calls a day with proposals to collaborate in organising events or in various ways”.
Something is moving in the panorama of Italian Christian music, in spite of the negative prejudice that, according to Francesco Lorenzi, is not always without foundation. “Christian music must also be done well, otherwise it is counterproductive to do it. When I was a kid, I too considered music linked to the Church to be second rate, because I couldn’t tolerate the carelessness. What my parish proposed, speaking about music, represented everything I ran away from”. To summarize, “often, in Italy, Christian music is synonymous of parish-music, in a bad sense, made with little care and little professionalism. But there is a beauty that many people know how to catch. They must be only helped to express it”.
Going forward, one of the objectives of ‘La Gloria’ is “to ensure that a musical heritage belonging to the soundtrack of Italian Church history, won’t be lost”. Andrea Ricci, the other founder, says that “when I was a child and went to Mass, the songs I heard struck me as much as the reading of the Gospel. Because music is a very powerful vehicle of values, an important tool to accompany prayer”. This is why “La Gloria” bought the historical catalogue of another record publisher, Rugginenti, included authors and songs that, although they are some decades old, all Italian Church attendants know.
A famous example is “Symbolum 77”, because it was composed in 1977: “You are my life, I have nothing else…”. In addition to be the composer of songs like this one, Pierangelo Sequeri – dean of the famous Pontifical Theological Institute for the Sciences of Marriage and Family of Rome – boasts a prestigous curriculum vitae as a theologian. But some years ago, in an interview to the catholic italian newspaper “Avvenire”, he did not hide – as a theologian – a bit of envy for the fame of his musician “alter ego”.
However, Ricci is keen to point out that Italian authors of Christian music are not only priests or consecrated. The most prominent names are Debora Vezzani, Mattia Civico, Guido Meregalli, but “many people self-produce their own songs and post them on the Internet, without reaching a wide audience. We want to offer them a home and professional services”. The condition, however, is compliance with a minimum quality standard, because “beauty recalls God. But if you put an ugly dress on the Gospel, then the message becomes ugly too. So we must also work on the quality of the writing, the execution and the recording of the music”.
In short, there’s no lack of work to be done, to at least approach, if not reach, those countries where Christian music is a mass phenomenon like pop music, starting from Brazil and the United States, where the evangelical communities are those who give impetus to this phenomenon. “As Catholics, we have a lot to learn from them”, according to Francesco Lorenzi: but unfortunately “there is a lack of professionalism because there is a lack of true education in the beauty of art. The Church no longer has the primary role it had in the past in spreading artistic beauty…”.
The problem is much more concrete than it seems. The “The Sun” tour Italy for concerts that attract mainly young audiences. And listening to the testimony of their story is just as moving as listening to the music. Apart from the high quality of liturgical music, “for all the other genres of Christian music, there is a problem”, Lorenzi warns: “music engages and questions young people. If the Church does not develop a serious path, it is even more difficult to find channels of dialogue with them”.
In any case, there is one thing that Christian music cannot sacrifice to the quality of the product: authenticity. It doesn’t matter if someone hopes to become famous and make music a profession, even if . “We know that it is a long path” Lorenzi says; “but first,” he adds, “Christian music needs to have the recognition it does not yet have in Italy. If you search for Italian Christian music on Spotify, you don’t even find the category…”. That’s why “La Gloria” calls first and foremost for being authentic, as Christian music authors and singers. “If a song can do good,” Lorenzi explains, “it happens because the singer lives what he sings and sings what he lives, so his music becomes a powerful message.
His partner also agrees. Although they are both familiar with the logic of commercial music, “that’s how we think. For “La Gloria”, the important thing is the song, not the singer. We are not interested in those who want to become famous, but in those who bear witness to an authentic faith, putting their faith journey into their music”. That’s why “La Gloria” is a non-profit enterprise. “We do it for His glory, not ours”.