October 29, 2022 was a historic day for the nation of Italy. In Milan, 13,200 people gathered at the Mideolanum Forum. It was the largest crowd ever at the stadium which normally hosts basketball games and concerts. But on that day, the sold-out crowd heard that good works do not save anyone. They heard that every man and woman is born a sinner. And they heard what Nicodemus heard when he came to Jesus in the middle of the night—“Truly, truly I say to you, unless someone is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Never before had an Italian crowd of such magnitude heard an unambiguously evangelical message. More than 500 Italian churches sponsored the event. Franklin Graham was the preacher. And standing next to him, translating his English sermon for the predominantly Italian speaking crowd was Johnny Gravino. Johnny, an alumnus of The Master’s Seminary (M.Div 08), leads the Italian Theological Academy, which trains men for pastoral ministry. The event was an encouragement as the true gospel was preached by Franklin Graham. Still, what Italy needs even more is sound biblical preaching coming from faithful churches all over Italy.
“What the Italian church desperately needs is sound preaching week after week in local congregations” Johnny said. “Far too many pastors simply don’t know how to use the Bible to edify believers. They focus on evangelism—which in a sense is understandable because the Italian church is small—but as they neglect to perfect the saints through the preaching of God’s Word, they inadvertently cultivate shallow ministries and shallow Christians. They care more about events and activities than giving their people a solid diet from the Word.”
Johnny’s passion in life—and his calling from the Lord—is to address that most foundational of Italy’s spiritual needs. He knows that citizens of the predominantly Catholic church will not be compelled to forsake Rome and embrace Christ if there are no preachers capable of accurately unleashing the power of God’s Word. As Romans 10:14 says, “How then are they to call on Him whom they have not believed? How are they to believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?”
That calling led Johnny from graduation day at The Master’s Seminary in 2008 to the ministry at the Italian Theological Academy one year later. The Italian Theological Academy was located on the island of Sicily, which is the southernmost tip of the country. For more than a decade, Johnny led this pastoral training center from Sicily.
As Johnny reflects on his many years leading the Italian Theological Academy, he said—“Men came [from all over Italy] not only to train, but also to live with us in the church. They were discipled in the classroom and also in the church.” Johnny continued: “As the Lord blessed our school, the ministry expanded into the mainland [of Italy]. By God’s grace, we were able to develop relationships with local churches and campuses in the center of the country. We started to hold pastor’s conferences and publish books, including a translation of The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series. As all that happened, I became convinced that our school needed to be centrally located so we could reach all of Italy. So nearly three years ago, we moved the Italian Theological Academy to Rome.”
Even as there are encouraging signs for the evangelical church in Italy—the unprecedented gathering in Milan, along with the many trained graduates of the Italian Theological Academy, and the growing number of biblically sound resources available in Italian—Johnny knows that ministry in his homeland is still daunting.
Johnny pointed out that “the Pope and the Vatican are only a few miles away. The Roman Catholic church is our constant reality. Italy is 99% Roman Catholic and evangelicals are less than 1%. The Roman Catholic church is so monolithic and gigantic that it often ignores us and we have trouble reaching it because the evangelical church in Italy is small and divided. Our goal—and our daily battle—is to encourage evangelical churches to commit to the training of their leaders. Many Italian churches have faithful men who, unfortunately, cannot study, prepare to preach, and train because they are bi-vocational pastors. The Italian Theological Academy wants to come alongside these churches, encourage them, affirm our common commitment to Scripture, and see them invest in the importance of training.”
In the midst of all the challenges, Johnny is uniquely gifted for the ministry God has called him to fulfill. The son of Italian parents, Johnny grew up in Canada, speaking Italian at home. His mother introduced him to the gospel, but he didn’t repent and trust Christ until 25 years of age. Two weeks after his conversion, Johnny went to Italy for what was supposed to be a few weeks vacation. Through a series of providences, he ended up staying for five years to work at the Canadian embassy.
In his early days living in Rome, he was spiritually fed by sermons tapes from John MacArthur. His sister would mail them to him from Montreal. Exposure to quality preaching changed Johnny and led him to a healthy church in Rome. While living in Rome, he met his wife, was introduced to men connected to The Master’s Seminary, and realized that what the country he now called home needed most was what had changed him: the Word of God preached faithfully and clearly. That’s why, six years after moving from Canada to Italy, Johnny and his family came back to North America to attend The Master’s Seminary in Southern California. The goal was always to return to Italy and to bring the training he received at TMS to the Italian people.
“Next to salvation and marrying my wife, attending The Master’s Seminary was the best decision I ever made,” Johnny said. “It formed my convictions around the authority of Scripture, the nature of pastoral ministry, and the importance of clarity and courage in preaching. I will forever be grateful for how TMS prepared me for ministry here in Italy.”