Folk-rock icon Bob Dylan's performance for Pope John Paul II and hundreds of thousands of others at the recent Eucharistic Congress in Bologna, Italy, raised the hackles of some Catholic critics. In making their case against Dylan, some dug into the 56-year-old singer-songwriter's past and took issue with his comments and ideas from more than three decades ago. Others were less personal in their objections and said only that rock music performed by anyone is incongruous with a Eucharistic Congress.
As the respected Italian journalist Vittorio Messori noted: Young people today need the “silence of the monastery,” not more rock music. That's a legitimate point, but it doesn't seem to recognize what it means to be young and taken with music that you feel speaks directly to your life. Even at 77, the Pope apparently remembers what that was like, and in his mind, an eight-day Eucharistic Conference had a place for a sprinkling of “quality” rock music.
Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) points out the importance of literature and art to the life of the Church. “They seek to give expression to man's nature, his problems and his experience in an effort to discover and perfect man himself and the world in which he lives; they try to discover his place in history and in the universe, to throw light on his suffering and his joy, his needs and his potentialities, and to outline a happier destiny in store for him.”
That Dylan's music and sometimes prophetic words have illuminated the search for meaning for many—innumerable faithful Catholics among them—can't be disputed. He has attempted and often succeeded in capturing the suffering and joy of existence.
In addressing the crowd at Bologna, the Pope himself borrowed from Dylan's Blowin in the Wind, the singer's simple poetic examination of life's great questions. Dylan's suggestion in the refrain that, the “answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,” was expanded upon by the Pope. “It's true,” John Paul II said, “not, however, in the wind that blows everything away into nothingness, but in the wind that is the breath and voice of the Spirit, the voice that calls and says, ‘Come.’”
To the song's question, “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?,” the Pope offered an answer: “One! There is only one road for man, and that is Christ, who said, ‘I am the way.’”
Even as he interpreted it, John Paul II's clear appreciation of the Dylan song seemed a perfect illustration of the Gaudium et Spes passage that notes: “Every effort should be made … to make artists feel that they are understood by the Church in their artistic work and to encourage them, while enjoying a reasonable standard of freedom, to enter into happier relations with the Christian community.”
A spiritual quest has always been detectable in the lyrics of Dylan, who left his Jewish roots to embrace evangelical Christianity before returning to Judaism. While some Catholic critics have noted Dylan's standing as the quintessential anti-authoritarian symbol of the ‘60s, he has also long been a voice for social justice. At the Eucharistic Congress, the Pope chose to emphasize what the iconoclastic singer has in common with the Church and Christ's message. He said Christianity was essentially counter-cultural and that it inspires people to reach for something better than the easy life, which can lead to spiritual suffocation. Sounds like a theme for a Dylan song.
John Paul seems to understand that in a time when there is so much to decry in the arts and entertainment world, opportunities to embrace the good—especially that which has resonated so profoundly for so many—shouldn't be missed. The Pontiff's preference for engaging the culture, rather than retreating from what's bad about it, is a good part of the reason he enjoys such popularity among young people.
Certainly the Pope would like to see more of them embrace the “silence of the monastery.” But for many, he realizes, a richer contemplative life will come later. He noted at the Congress that as a person grows older, music and song often give way to “silence and prayer.” Until then, John Paul doesn't mind meeting people halfway. In the interest of creating a Church that seems welcoming to all ages, he obviously believes there's plenty of room—even at a Eucharistic Congress—for a few good tunes.