Episode 95: Elder Massimo De Feo, president of the Church’s Europe Central Area, on the ‘unparalleled future’ of Europe despite trying times
Why the European Church leader believes in the Prophet’s vision of a bright future in Europe in spite of political conflict, a refugee crisis and rising secularism
During a special devotional broadcast to Latter-day Saints in Europe in early 2022, President Russell M. Nelson said that at a time when some feel that religion is dying in Europe, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has “an unparalleled future” because of its faithful members.
“You have access to the power — God’s power — that will literally change the future of Europe,” he said during the event on Sunday, Jan. 23. “As you keep your covenants with increasing precision, you are the hope of Europe and you are the hope of Israel.”
Elder Massimo De Feo, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Europe Central Area, joins this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about this important area of the world — which is impacted by a political conflict, a refugee crisis and secularism.
Elder Massimo De Feo: I do believe that Europe has a bright future and an unparalleled future, as President [Russell M.] Nelson mentioned. And one of the basic principles is that we truly are all brothers and sisters, children of God. And because of that, we should do everything possible to help anyone with a need — regardless of personal circumstances, citizenship, language or culture. Although there are many different cultures, languages, traditions in so many countries, the gospel is the same and the love is the same and that love and faith is tangible.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
During a special devotional broadcast to Latter-day Saints in Europe earlier this year, President Russell M. Nelson said that at a time when some feel religion is dying in Europe, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an unparalleled future because of its faithful members. “You have access to the power, God’s power, that will literally change the future of Europe,” President Nelson said during the special Europe devotional broadcast Sunday, Jan. 23. “As you keep your covenants with increasing precision, you are the hope of Europe, you are the hope of Israel.”
Elder Massimo De Feo, [a General Authority Seventy and] president of the Church’s Europe Central Area, joins this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about this important area of the world. Elder De Feo was born in Italy. He served as a full-time missionary in the Rome Italy Mission, and he has served as a General Authority Seventy since April 2016. Elder De Feo, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about this important area of the world.
Elder Massimo De Feo: Thank you, Sarah.
Sarah Jane Weaver: As we start today, I want to talk about what entails administrative areas of the Church. For our listeners who don’t know, the Church is divided into administrative areas. They’re overseen by an area presidency, and earlier this year there was some changes in Europe and the former Europe and Europe East Areas were realigned and that resulted in the Europe Central Area, the Europe North Area and the Europe East Areas. Elder De Feo, can you tell us what countries are included in your administrative responsibilities for the Europe Central Area.
Elder Massimo De Feo: ... The Europe Area included all countries of western Central Europe and some countries of Eastern Europe. So, the Europe East Area was mainly Russia and the countries around Russia. Now, there is a Europe Central Area. The Europe North Area was created in April and there is still a Europe East Area. ....
Sarah Jane Weaver: And obviously, overseeing the work there is daunting, because it is done in so many different languages. Can you talk about [President Nelson’s] broadcast and what impact that devotional message had on Latter-day Saints in Europe?
Elder Massimo De Feo: It is still very challenging, because of the languages and because of the different levels of maturity of the Church. ... From my perspective, President Nelson’s devotional gave new energy to all members in Europe.
In fact, we frequently remind all members about that devotional, and many refer to that as a framework for what needs to happen and how we should look at things in the Church and the future. So, the impact was absolutely amazing in terms of faith — which increased greatly among leaders, members and missionaries. It brought unity, a unified vision, and new enthusiasm. We even use it in many of our meetings to discuss how this will actually happen and what we need to do to make it happen. So, it had an incredible, amazing impact in our minds and souls, because it gave us a new purpose. ... It was very, very specific, even in some of the promises and the blessings. As you mentioned in introduction, there will be an unparalleled future for Europe.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and this is a time of great trial and worry for many Latter-day Saints in Europe. I have always felt that the devotional itself was an example of President Nelson’s prophetic inspiration to focus on that area of the world just before conflict would break out between Russia and Ukraine. How has that conflict impacted life for members in Europe right now?
Elder Massimo De Feo: [President Nelson’s] devotional was really a prophetic moment, because that was exactly one month, only four weeks, before the conflict. No one knew that was coming. So [after the war began], we went back to devotional, and we recognized immediately the hand of the Lord. ...
Now, putting aside for a moment all the problems that the conflict has created ..., there are always issues and problems for the families, for individuals, people who need to leave their countries. So, it is very, very impactful. ... Many times we look at conflicts and wars as tragedies — which is true, of course. But beyond that, I think we need to look at opportunities. So, first of all, I have never seen before so many members helping each other in a united effort, at all levels, in all countries. I’ve seen solidarity. I’ve seen sincere love for others, the desire to help in any way possible. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen, really, the gospel in action and in practice. Now, I’m not saying that before the conflict that this was not the case. I’m saying that because of the conflict, something happened in the hearts and the minds and the souls of the members.
The conflict indirectly created an unprecedented unity among all members throughout the Europe Area, a sense of fulfillment, I would say, for many members and families who immediately [rose] to the occasion and helped refugees and members from other countries arriving and needing help. ... All members, in all units, in all countries in Europe, volunteered and provided all types of help to those in need.
[Unity is one outcome of the conflict], in all of its tragedy. ... We have seen, not only active members of the Church helping, but also less active joining again, and many friends of members joining the Church in helping. One nice thing to see was how many members of the Church in many countries — not just in the border countries, but in many countries —offered to host refugees in their homes. .... And it was incredible, amazing, heartwarming to see how they, many members of the Church across the area, opened their homes.
Another aspect is that many members coming out of Ukraine and arriving in different countries showed an incredible, great faith — like pioneers — that strengthened the faith of those who helped. So, all were strengthened in their faith, both those who stepped up to help ... and those who received help. ...
Just to give you an example, I met a family of five from Ukraine. ... I met them in Warsaw, in Poland, a couple of weeks after the conflict began. And it is a miraculous story. ... [The mother emphasized] “and we have seen the hand of the Lord in this.” ... The refugees who are members of the Church started, then, to attend local units and quickly integrated and even strengthened the faith of the local members in the receiving countries with their testimonies, resilience and dedication. So, the temporal effects of the conflict, of course, are tragic and are being evaluated to see how families and members have been impacted. But, certainly, the spiritual effects are very positive across the board — in every place, country, and unit of the Church in Europe.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I think so many of us in so many other areas of the world have been praying for the Latter-day Saints and the refugees and anyone impacted by this conflict in Europe. Overall, how are the refugees doing?
Elder Massimo De Feo: Overall, they are doing pretty well. ... [The Church helped the 1,000] members of the Church who evacuated from Ukraine. ... We had a system to place them in the right place, to help them with first aid and emergency needs, and even to help relocate [them] to other countries. ... The Church is coordinating efforts, even with the local governments, with many, many service projects, to help them. So, we are committed in many ways. In general, to answer your question, they are doing pretty well. ...
Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, long before this current conflict in Europe, refugees were coming to so many of the nations there. Obviously, your home country of Italy has been the destination for refugees coming from nations in areas south of Europe. I remember a beautiful talk by Elder Patrick Kearon, now of the Presidency of the Seventy, who spoke about refugee and this crisis in 2016. Can you talk about the Church’s desire to help those in need?
Elder Massimo De Feo: Yeah, I remember that, a wonderful talk. I think Elder Kearon touched the hearts of many. ... Even Elder [Dieter F.] Uchtdorf, in one of the pictures, as Elder Kearon was speaking, ... was touched [because of his personal connection to refugees]. So, I think that has a very strong impact on all of us. Yes, you are right, Sarah. Many countries in Europe have been affected by waves of immigrants for decades. So, this is not new. This is our history. ... Many seek a better life in Europe and opportunities to help their families with the money they can earn by working in Europe. ... For decades, many members of the Church come in from some poorer countries to find a future in Europe. So, we have seen many [waves of refugees] from all over the world. Europe has a long history of immigration and how to help immigrants.
Now, most of the countries in Europe have well-established policies to help immigrants. You mentioned Italy. ... It is one of those countries like Greece or Spain that is kind of specialized in first arrival, in first aid, and emergencies. Then there are other countries, where policies and laws are more developed to host these refugees more permanently, like Germany, for example, the U.K. [United Kingdom], the Nordic countries. So, the European community is well-prepared to help regulate the flows. Of course, some things don’t work, as expected, or there are political issues that don’t help. Still, there is collaboration between the Church and local governments and entities to help in whatever ways are needed. Now, having said that, going back to your question, the Church is on the frontline and is and always [has] been eager to help in addition to what local governments do. ...
So, certainly what Elder Kearon taught at that general conference is true and what we need to understand. I think one of the basic principles, is that we truly are all brothers and sisters, children of God and because of that, we should do everything possible to help anyone with a need, regardless of personal circumstances, citizenship, language or culture. The gospel is always inclusive and never exclusive. ....
Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow, well, and I was so touched that President Nelson spoke about the future of Europe and the growth of the Church in Europe and promised a bright future for Europe and there was one point when he actually said Europe will grow not just from those coming to Europe, but with those who are already there. At a time when many in Europe are not as religious as they have been in the past, can you talk about the future of the Church there, as well?
Elder Massimo De Feo: Absolutely. So, I remember well, the promise by President Nelson. Most of the countries in Europe are becoming more and more secular, so that is a reality. However, we see a bright future [for] the Church in Europe. Now, of course, traditions are hard to change.... I think President Nelson gave the promise to increase our faith, improve our vision, show that if we believe and see things from a different perspective — with a new, increased faith, and look forward and ahead of us — there is a bright future, regardless of what happened, or didn’t happen in the past.
... I believe that President Nelson just reinforced a vision of the future that must increase our faith, that with the help of the Lord, we can do it, and things will change. So, I think it means that we should look at new opportunities for those who have been in the Church here and look for more opportunities for those who are coming to Europe. ...
We are seeing already many miracles. Even among those who are coming to Europe, there are some who are already joining the Church or coming to the gospel of Jesus Christ. ... It is a new day, if we see with a vision of faith. That’s what President Nelson promised, to look ahead. That’s the bright future, an unparalleled future. So, I think if we believe in that, if we change our mindset and increase our faith, there’s no problem. We can do it and the Lord will move forward the work.
Sarah Jane Weaver: That is beautiful. We have actually talked about the conflict and the refugee crisis and secularism in these countries, but what are some of the other challenges now facing members in some of these areas?
Elder Massimo De Feo: The challenges are the same as before. I don’t think anything, any challenges really changed compared to what we saw before the conflict. Of course, youth, the rising generation, that is an important duty and responsibility that we feel, that we need to do, that we need to take care of. It’s not easy for our rising generation to live in this society, and so it is challenging. ... This conflict did not add any more challenges, other than maybe trying to provide the needed assistance, respond to the emergency quickly and effectively, which is still a challenge today after a few months. In some ways, the spiritual challenges have decreased, ... as the faith of many has actually increased, even because of the conflict.
So, yes, we look at more secularism, more and more secularism in many countries. That is a challenge which can affect how people receive the message of the gospel and staying strong and keeping the covenants in a global society that is trying to decrease the importance of religion and the role of Jesus Christ in the lives of people. So, yes, we hear less and less about Jesus Christ. That is why to face these challenges, we need to raise our voice more and more about Jesus Christ. So, that is the main challenge for the members of Europe — how to survive spiritually in a changing world that is trying to diminish faith and the role of Jesus Christ in our lives.
Sarah Jane Weaver: One of the great blessings of my career has been the opportunity to meet Latter-day Saints in nations all over the world, including Europe. It’s always amazing to me when I meet them, because they feel different to me. They feel elevated and that the Church has blessed their life in a unique and powerful way and that they’ll be able to and then turn and, and bless their families and their communities and their nations. Can you talk about the strength and the power of members in Europe?
Elder Massimo De Feo: The Church in Europe, as you know — you came here many times — is very diverse, with so many different countries, languages, cultures, traditions. So, there are different levels of maturity in the Church in Europe. ... With all these differences, the gospel has blessed all people, and countries, and families, and individuals across the continent in powerful ways.
Now, let me say, despite all the differences, the members of the Church in Europe are very united. ... The Church is a blessing for the countries where there is a presence of the Church. It is a blessing for the community, where we serve in many ways. It is a blessing for the people of the countries where more and more temples are being built, because temples really are beacons and lighthouses in the darkness of the world. So, members have been blessed individually and collectively as they find their home and family in the Church. People who would feel lonely or left to themselves because of differences in the normal society finally find a place or have found a place that they can call home, a place where they find other brothers and sisters who understand how they feel, who faced their same challenges and who help each other.
So, the gospel has been a miraculous blessing for all in Europe in many ways. I would say if you ask me about the strength of the members in Europe, I think they are faithful. They are strong in defending religion, because it’s not an easy task today, in this society. They are very united in the gospel, despite all the differences — which could be a real challenge with the cultural and the tradition. ... the European Saints are ... very solid, very rich and very strong in faith and unity and love — love for the Lord, love for the Prophet, love for the apostles and of course, love for Savior.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And this is a time, that you just mentioned, of temple-building across the world. Just in his time as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Nelson has announced 100 temples, some of those in Europe. We met several years ago at the dedication of the Rome Italy Temple. How have temples blessed members in these countries?
Elder Massimo De Feo: Well, yes, President Nelson announced many temples. ... Members all over Europe are just excited for the temples that have been announced and are thrilled and wait for more to be announced by President Nelson. The temples are indeed an incredible blessing for our members in Europe. Through temples, families are being united and even reunited. New converts are strengthening themselves. ...
More temples mean that many more members can reach a temple in a few hours travel, whatever that is, and this is proving already to be a blessing that will make the difference in how the Church will grow in the future in Europe, and, I believe, all over the world. Now, the youth in particular, are beginning to understand the importance of making and keeping covenants and feel something deeper in their hearts. We hear of many youth who are becoming stronger as they attend the temple on a regular basis. So, more temples will increase the power that the members will feel in their lives and so, as a natural consequence of that, the Church will grow stronger and stronger in Europe, no question, no doubt about that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Great, well, and you I had the opportunity last October to accompany President M. Russell Ballard and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Elder Quentin L. Cook as they visited England and reflected on their missions there. They had all been British Latter-day Saint missionaries and during that trip, there was also some opportunity to think and reflect on the early Latter-day Saints who joined the Church in England. Now, when you think about the early days of the Church, Europe played such an important role and such an important part in that original gathering to Zion. Can you share your feelings about this important Latter-day Saint legacy?
Elder Massimo De Feo: Absolutely. Thank you, Sarah, and you were there as well. So, we were witnesses of that historic event. Now, first of all, let me say it was a personal blessing for me to accompany three apostles on that visit. I still remember the feeling I had. It was like being with modern Peter, James and John. So, I could feel their love for the members and the people in U.K. I saw and felt how they are attached to that land and how the members are connected. They feel connected to them because of their missions as young missionaries in that land. So, there was a very special feeling during the whole trip. ...
So, when the Brethren announced the creation of the Europe North Area, located in London, just right after this general conference, I rejoiced. ... There will be more opportunities to grow and focus and even lead the Church from a stronghold like the Church is in the U.K. .... They really know what the gospel is about. They were kind of educated in the gospel in an incredible, wonderful way that now, we have, well-prepared leaders for the Church in U.K. And we have so many who can serve any callings, any assignment, all levels.
I think [Latter-day Saints] will do everything in their capabilities to create a new spiritual momentum for U.K. in all the countries in the Europe North Area, which will be felt across the whole continent. Yes, you’re right, there is a spiritual legacy that if understood, from a spiritual perspective, can really make the difference for the Church again, like it did at the early stages of the growth of the restored Church.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I kind of want to circle back to where we started this podcast. We spoke a lot about this very tragic conflict between Ukraine and Russia. You’ve been right involved with worrying and thinking about Latter-day Saints who may be impacted by that conflict. How has that conflict affected you, personally?
Elder Massimo De Feo: .... Every time there is a conflict, we all suffer. We all lose. So, it affects me as a leader of the Church, but also as a human being, because they are all my brothers and sisters, wherever they they are. I suffer mainly for the children who lose their hope in the future, as they see what wars still destroy lives and opportunities. I’m afraid for them. I’m afraid for for them, because they lose hope. So, even more, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to all the problems of the world. On the other hand, yes, it affects me, in my heart, in my mind and of course, I need to think of ways to help. We have set up entire systems and structures, organizations, even some new organizations within the area to help. So yes, it affects us and me, personally, but on the other hand, I know that the Lord takes what men do wrong and He transforms it in opportunities.
So, I see opportunities of many kinds in the future. You know, Sarah, we need to not, again, look back and stay on the tragic events that we face. We take care of those, we handle tragic moments, we help we do our best. ... If there’s a way that can help in doing that, that’s what we need to do. If you think of the pandemic, for example, the pandemic of course, it was a very tragic event. Many families lost dear ones, and for a time the world stopped.
In Luke 15 it says that there was a famine in the land and because of that famine, some started to think and to suffer even more. ...
But that was an opportunity for the Lord to transform a tragic circumstance, a tragic event, into an opportunity to go back to the Father. And so, a war, a pandemic, anything that happens, we need to act quickly and help and then look at the opportunity to transform that into a spiritual advantage, or a spiritual opportunity to go back to the Father, like the prodigal son, go back to the Father in every way possible. And I think my role, our role here, my role, is to mainly look, open our eyes, spiritual eyes and see the opportunities for the missionaries, for example, and for the members to help their friends, to look at the events in a spiritual way so that we really take the opportunity. That’s the way I see it.
Sarah Jane Weaver: That has been an answer to my personal prayers. I had not contemplated that one way we can all help people around the globe is by strengthening ourselves spiritually, so we’ll be able to receive and act on personal revelation in our own lives and to bless the lives of others. Having said that, one of the questions we’ve received so much at Church News, since this conflict began, was how members, especially members in the United States, can help those in Europe. What can we do from our seat, here in a different country, to help those who may be affected by war in Europe?
Elder Massimo De Feo: We received that question many times and, you know, with so many wonderful and generous members in the [United] States and especially in Utah, where the Church is so strong, many asked the question, “What can I do to help?”
So, the evacuation from Ukraine was massive, and so we needed to act quickly and effectively. Now, having said that, so this ERC, this committee, was very helpful in streamlining processes, to coordinate efforts and make sure the right help would reach the right people.
I’ll give you an example. I saw, you know, when I was there, I saw that there were wonderful members of the Church, very kind and generous. ...
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, certainly, so many people are continuing to think about and pray for all of the Saints in Europe, especially those Saints in Ukraine and Russia and all of those amazing Saints who are helping them in other European countries. When we end each Church News podcast, we do it with having our guest answer the same question and we always give them the last word, and so I want to turn the time over to you and have you answer a question, and the question is, “What do you know now?” and what do you know now after leading and serving with and associating with Latter-day Saints in Europe?
Elder Massimo De Feo: What do I know now? So, that Europe is a wonderful place, full of opportunities. If we see them with our spiritual eyes, I learned that members in Europe are very generous, and Europe, in many ways, leads the world in what will then happen in the rest of the world. In Europe, the political turmoil effects the political balance or imbalance for the entire world, as it is happening right now. So, this not just now, because the war in Ukraine, but it always has been so. Europe is the center of the world in many ways, for its rich culture, politics, innovations, new ideas, especially coming from the new generations. The youth in Europe, both in the Church and outside the Church, in European society are very much involved, and interested in what happens in the world. They want to make a difference. They want to contribute. They don’t hesitate to raise their voice at all levels to declare what they believe and how the society should change. They lead the changes. They fight for their ideals. So, we live in a very lively and dynamic society in Europe. That’s what I see. That’s what I learned — well-advanced and full of culture and innovative ideas.
In the Church, we see the same. We see the effects of this, because, again, our rising generation is strong and will raise their voice to make things better. I learned that if we give responsibility to the youth, they will take it and lead with patience and faith, even better than past generations in the Church, where the pioneers in Europe had great faith but had maybe less skills in leadership, maybe, and broader vision to lead. ... Although there are many different cultures, languages, traditions, in so many countries, the gospel is the same and the love is the same. Wherever I go, I feel for the Saints and from the Saints the same love and great faith in Jesus Christ. Members in Europe are faithful if they pass the tests of this life and the challenges of this difficult society, they are very strong in keeping our covenants. Most of the members love the Church, love the Savior, and that love and faith is tangible. And so, that’s what I learned, that Europe is a wonderful place to live, to grow, to establish the Church. ...
The Lord’s preparing the way for a Second Coming and so, I do believe, from what I learned, and I saw that Europe has a bright future and an unparalleled future, as President Nelson mentioned. That’s what I learned. So, I’m deeply grateful that I was born and raised in Europe. Although my family never joined the Church, I joined the Church with my brother, when I was 10, he was 11, and our parents never joined the Church in this life, they did afterwards, but I’m grateful that, in a miraculous way, I was raised in the Church. I grew up in a Church, even without a family, and I’m still here. There must be a reason for that, and so I am grateful that the Lord has taken care of me all of my life. I always felt the love of the Lord for me. I always felt my love for Him. I think it was born with the love of the Lord in my heart. Maybe it’s something that came from before this life, but I always loved the Lord. I always felt that He is the head of His Church, and this is His true Church.
I have seen the hand of the Lord everywhere and throughout my life and in everything that I have done and seen, I recognize that without Him, everything seems impossible. When President Nelson says that the Lord uses the unlikely to accomplish the impossible, well, you have one right here. I am unlikely and, but I know that with His help, and in His strength, I can do anything that He wants me to do, and I know that it’s true and I have complete faith in my Savior. There’s nothing to fear. I love my Savior. Of course, there are things that need to be repaired, everything that we do. There are many broken things, of course, because we are imperfect beings, and many broken hearts and souls, but I know that He loves to repair broken things and broken hearts and broken souls. That’s why He is our Savior, and He can do it. He will do it, and I testify of the restored Church, and I testify of Jesus Christ that He is my Savior and our Savior, and He will come and save us, and I love Him for this. And I share my testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.