Two emblematic figures from the 20th century met for the first time in September. 27, 1997: A var Bob Dylanand the other was Pope John Paul II.
This strange moment took place in Bologna, Italy, where the 77-year-old Pope was attending a Eucharistic congress billed specifically for young peopleand their musicAbout 300,000 Catholic youth were present.
Drummer David Kemper remembers the event as his very first gig with Dylan’s band. Dylan’s manager “Jeff Kramer called and said, ‘Bob wants you to join his band,'” Kemper said. Rolling stones in 2022. “I said, “Sure. How do we get started?” He says, “Well, we have a concert with the Pope in Bologna.” I said, ‘Say that again?’ He says, “Yes, the Pope. John Paul II invited us to a Eucharistic congress.”
Before Dylan began his performance, the Pope addressed the audience: “You say the answer blows in the wind, my friend. So it is: but it is not the wind that blows things away, it is the spirit and life of the Saint. The Spirit, the voice that calls and says: ‘Come!’
“You ask me how many roads a man must go down before he becomes a man,” the Pope added. “I answer: There is only one way for man, and that is the way of Jesus Christ, who said: ‘I am the way and the life’.”
Dylan and his band back then took the stagewho first performed “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” followed by “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
“We’re playing the first song,” Kemper recalled, “and I looked over to my left in the back corner and I saw John Paul sitting there. He was resting his head on his hands. I thought, ‘Is this guy alive ? Is he listening? He’s out there for everyone to see.’ But Bob was on good behavior; I could tell. It was great. I thoroughly enjoyed it.” Dylan then removed his cowboy hat and walked up the stairs to greet the Pope in person before returning to the stage for an encore of “Forever Young”.
Watch Bob Dylan meet Pope John Paul II in 1997
Not everyone enjoyed it entirely, however, including future Pope Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger, then a cardinal, admitted that he was afraid to host Dylan and have him perform. “There was reason to be skeptical, and I was,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2007 book, John Paul II, my beloved predecessor. “Yes, in a sense I still am today.”
Especially in the early days of his career, Dylan was often described as the voice of his generation, a symbol of personal and political revolution. He openly disliked and often rejected these notions, but they formed the basis of Pope Benedict XVI’s concerns about “whether it was right to let this kind of so-called prophets take the stage.”
Dylan’s relationship with religion had also been the subject of controversy at times. He grew up in a Jewish family, and although he never outwardly rejected Judaism, he didn’t feel the need to analyze it much either. “I’m Jewish,” he said Washington Post in 1987. “It touches my poetry, my life, in ways I can’t describe. Why should I declare something that should be so obvious?”
Then, in the late 70s, Dylan surprised his fans when he declared himself a born-again Christian. Three albums of gospel-inspired music followed: the 1979s Slow train comingThe 1980s Saved and the 1981s Shot of Love. Then Dylan abruptly went back to recording mainly secular music and spoke little about religion.
“People call you that, or they call you that,” he said Rolling stones in 1984, “but I can’t answer that because then it seems like I’m being defensive – and you know what that really means?”
Yet, as Dylan saw it, he and the Pope were not so incompatible. They just saw things from a different point of view. “Here it is with me and the religious thing,” Dylan shared Newsweek in 1997. “This is the flat truth: I find religiosity and philosophy in music. I don’t find it anywhere else.
“Songs like ‘Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain’ or ‘I Saw the Light’ – that’s my religion,” he added. “I don’t stick with rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all that stuff. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of those kinds of entities. The songs are my lexicon. I believe in the songs.”
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