“The Book Convinced Him,” Ensign, Mar. 1990, 50
For Mario Ottaviano, the answer was simple: No, his children would not take the religion classes at their school in Rome. An atheist, and a son and grandson of atheists, he believed in no religion.
But soon his children were coming home from school crying. They were the only ones in their school not taking the classes—the only ones who claimed no religion at all. Other pupils taunted them about their lack of belief. They wanted him at least to list some religion for them, even if they didn’t take the religion classes.
And so began Doctor Ottaviano’s search for the right church for his children. He had no intention of being involved with any religion himself. But his search would soon awaken a faith he had not thought possible in himself.
The doctor, a noted researcher in biophysical genetic engineering, approached the matter scientifically. He began by reviewing information about all the churches listed in a large catalog produced by the Vatican. Though he believed in no religion, Christian or Jewish, he was a descendant of Jews, so he automatically ruled out any anti-Jewish organization. Still, in the entire catalog, he found no church whose beliefs seemed to stand the test of logic. They were “empty,” he recalls—basically churches of men.
His methodical search occupied months of his spare time. Finally, in a small book in his own library, he found a reference to the Book of Mormon and to a Mormon church. He checked his encyclopedia “to find out what Mormonism was, and who was this Mister Joseph Smith.” Information in his encyclopedia was sketchy. A friend, a professor of religious history, assured him that it was a Marxist church. But Doctor Ottaviano was a leading Italian Marxist himself; he held educational positions in communist-affiliated organizations and was the founder of an Italian-Soviet educational and cultural exchange organization. He did not see how any religion could coexist with Marxism.
It was another friend, a teacher at the University of Naples, who gave the doctor some literature that explained basic beliefs of the Latter-day Saints. This material told him that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate beings and both have corporeal bodies. “I felt it was true,” he recalls. “No one had ever told me you should kneel down to pray, but I did it spontaneously.” He felt he should learn more. “So then I began to search for this church. Where was the Mormon church?”
He found an address for a local LDS chapel, and he and his youngest child, Marco, visited there one Sunday morning. After making inquiries, he was introduced to two missionaries. He asked them to come teach their religion to his children—“only for my children, not for me and my wife.” His wife, Stefania, also did not believe in any religion. As a researcher in a cancer ward for infants and children, she had been horrified by many of the things she had seen. Without understanding of the purposes of life (the church of her childhood had no answers for her), she refused to exercise faith in a god who would let such things happen to little children.
Doctor Ottaviano made it clear to his son and daughters that if they understood and believed what the missionaries taught, they could choose to be baptized in this church. But he intended to maintain his tradition of noninvolvement in matters of faith.
At first, the doctor stayed out of the missionary discussions at his home. He listened a bit at the missionaries’ invitation, but when he was invited to participate, he declined, telling them that “it would be like a cat playing with a mouse.” He found them “full of faith, but they lacked knowledge on many things.” He made it plain that they were not on his level intellectually and educationally. Was there anyone in their church prepared to answer his questions? Yes, they replied, he should meet their mission president.
That meeting did not take place for some time, but Doctor Ottaviano and his wife listened to more of the discussions. She was initially more receptive than he because of her early religious training, but within a short time he found himself reading the Book of Mormon.
“The more I read, the more terrorized I was, because it was as though the voices of my ancestors came out of those pages,” he reflects. In the course of his study, he subjected the Book of Mormon to various tests he considered scientific. In one twelve-hour period, for example, he read it from cover to cover, beginning at the back and making detailed notes designed to show him whether the book maintained its internal consistency. It did.
On occasion he would take small sections of the Book of Mormon to learned friends—rabbis, or scientists familiar with ancient texts—and ask them what they thought. They assured him the texts were authentic; from what ancient source did they come? The doctor did not tell his friends the source, since they would probably scoff at a book connected with one particular church. But he assured them that one day he would show them the book from which these passages came, and they could come to recognize the truth in it as he had.
On 4 December 1986, the day of his two daughters’ baptism (Sahara and Ljoya had reached baptismal age, but son Marco had not), Doctor Ottaviano first met Dwight B. Williams, then president of the Italy Rome Mission. Three days later they had the first of what would be many doctrinal discussions. President Williams had no problem handling questions at Doctor Ottaviano’s own intellectual level, and sometimes the discussions would go on for hours.
The doctor became so earnest in his investigation of the Church that he quit his job and suspended his connections with Marxist institutes and associations, telling them that he would be indefinitely occupied and would not have time to be involved. His family lived on his savings and income from investments, in addition to his wife’s salary, for months while he devoted hours each day to studying of the gospel.
There came a day when President Williams told him that he had studied long enough; it was time to seek the help of the Holy Spirit in knowing the truth. But the doctor had already reached this conclusion on his own. “By now, all of my theological questions had been answered, and I was studying a bit of the structure of the Church.” He realized that his intellectual reaction to the young missionaries who had taught his children had not shown the humility required when one is weighing eternal truths. He knew it was time to stop seeking scientific proofs of the gospel and to begin examining it with the heart.
Doctor Ottaviano recalls clearly the instant when he realized that he had a testimony of the Book of Mormon. He had been bedeviling a young sister missionary with questions during an intense discussion, and she slammed the book down on the table in disgust at his hard-headedness. It pained him to see her treat the book that way, because he knew it was the word of God. The next day, he went to his friend, President Williams, and set a baptismal date. He was baptized on 18 March 1987. Stefania was baptized two months later.
At times she had marveled at the intensity of her husband’s scrutiny of the gospel. How strange that it should take him away from the scientific studies he enjoyed so much! And he wondered, after his baptism, how his fellow Marxists would accept his decision. But when another Church member asked him if he planned to continue in his communist affiliations, Brother Ottaviano replied that of course he could not, because, after all, Marxism had previously been his religion.
Surprisingly, once he explained his conversion to them, his communist colleagues understood perfectly. Referring to his belief in the Book of Mormon, they reasoned: “Before you were Marxist, you were Hebrew, and this is the story of your people.” They agreed that he must now follow the path he had chosen.
Looking back on the beginning of his search for a religion for his children, he believes it was appropriate that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not listed in that catalog of religions he studied at first.
“We are not a religion” in the same sense as those churches founded by men, he testifies. “We are the true faith.” As such, he says, the Church does not need to be classified with religions of the world. It stands alone.