Tonight, Pope John Paul II will give his blessing to rock ‘n’ roll.
The pope and a retinue of cardinals and bishops will attend a church-sponsored concert that will feature American folk-rock icon Bob Dylan.
The occasion is the 23rd World Eucharistic Congress being held in the northern Italian city of Bologna. The church is evidently hoping that it can use rock ‘n’ roll as a medium to reach a larger audience of young people.
“The pope’s idea is to get closer to young people through pop music, which unfortunately for many years has been viewed with suspicion and indifference by the church,” said Monsignor Domenico Sigalinini, a spokesman for the Eucharistic Congress.
Dylan, who this month released a new album to mild critical acclaim, will headline a program that includes several Italian pop stars.
The 56-year-old singer/songwriter embraced born-again Christianity in the 1980s before recently returning to his Jewish roots. Asked by the Italian press why he had agreed to perform at the church-sanctioned event, the sometimes enigmatic Dylan would only say, “Why not?”
His presence along with that of the 77-year-old pope is expected to draw a crowd of about 300,000 to the Saturday evening concert.
On Sunday, the concert stage will be refitted as an altar and the pope will celebrate Mass.
Tickets to the concert are free but Dylan will receive about $350,000 for his performance, which is being underwritten by Alitalia, the Italian airline.
At a press briefing earlier in the week, Sigalinini asked “forgiveness” for the church’s belated attention to rock ‘n’ roll.
“The church has to come to terms with the language of young people. Let’s not forget that some rock music has managed to change political choices and modify the outlook of society,” he said.
“We don’t want to create a Catholic rock ‘n’ roll, but we do want to encourage a rock ‘n’ roll which expresses our values,” he said.
To that end, the Eucharistic Congress is releasing a CD that will feature some of the artists performing at Saturday’s concert. Dylan did not participate in the CD project.
Not everyone is enthralled by the church’s sudden embrace of rock ‘n’ roll, which some religious conservatives still put in an unholy trinity with sex and drugs.
“The millions spent on Dylan would be better spent on the poor of Mother Teresa,” complained one priest to an Italian newspaper.
John Paul’s interest in young people - and vice versa - has become the subject of much discussion and analysis in recent weeks.
Last month, the pope concluded an extraordinary pilgrimage to Paris for a Roman Catholic youth festival by celebrating Mass at Longchamp racecourse attended by more than a million people. It was the largest crowd ever assembled in the city.
What puzzles some is that while most young people, even in Catholic countries like France and Italy, disagree with the pope’s teachings on pre-marital sex, birth control and abortion, they are drawn by the power of his personality.
“Big meetings with the focus on celebrities (and) huge crowds have nothing to do with authentic religion. Few of these people would really be prepared to follow what the pope actually says,” said one commentary in the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
It went on to warn that the church risked “diluting its message by selling itself to the masses.”