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Times They Are A-Changin' for Church

Italy: Pope's appearance at Dylan concert is attempt to broaden appeal to youth.

September 28, 1997|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOLOGNA, Italy — Bob Dylan sang "Knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door" Saturday night, and the man with the keys to the kingdom rose to greet him.

In a brief encounter choreographed to broaden the Roman Catholic Church's appeal to Italian youth, Pope John Paul II took both of the rebel troubadour's hands and shook them vigorously before 200,000 wildly cheering fans at an outdoor pop concert.

Earlier, John Paul put his own spin on some of Dylan's best-known lyrics, telling the crowd: " 'How many roads must a man walk down before he becomes a man?' I answer you: One. There is only one road for man, and it is Christ!"

The nationally televised event, which gave new meaning to the phrase "an audience with the pope," also enlisted some of Italy's hottest singers in the church's admittedly belated effort to win young Italian souls with pop.

The 77-year-old pontiff, who became a bishop in Communist Poland the year Dylan released his seminal album, "The Times They Are A-Changin'," in 1964, is popular among young Catholics worldwide but has been slow to recognize the power of rock music.

Queried by youngsters during a visit to America a few years ago, John Paul said he enjoyed classical music but was getting "interested in modern music and in, what do you call it? . . ." An aide whispered in his ear, and the pontiff continued: ". . . and in rock."

John Paul looked every bit the fan Saturday night, gazing down attentively on the stage from a covered dais. Weary after a daylong visit to the city, he sat with chin in hand at first but later perked up, waving repeatedly to the performers.

The event, which also featured Italian singers Adriano Celentano, Gianni Morandi and Lucio Dalla, was thought up and organized by Bologna's Catholic archdiocese to cap a weeklong nationwide spiritual revival meeting. The local archbishop, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, declared that the Italian church must emerge from a "curtain of incense" in the next millennium and "walk in the world." The Vatican gave its blessing and put the concert on the pope's schedule.

The church's new direction is not universally welcomed. Costantino Muscau, a commentator for the respected daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, wrote that the Catholic revival week "runs the risk of being remembered only for the 'discotheque in the piazza with the disc jockey pope' " and urged John Paul to call in sick.

But the frail pontiff showed up and stayed for all but 30 minutes of the 2 1/2-hour concert.

"This is a courageous step by the church to reach out to the young," said Daniela Santa Andrea, 24, an observant Catholic in the crowd. "But I don't know whether it will work. Many Italians I know don't like Italian music and are too young for Bob Dylan. They'd rather hear Sting."

But Dylan they got, his raffish, studded black outfit a counterpoint to the pope's white robes.

The 56-year-old Jewish-born singer, who embraced evangelical Christianity in the late 1970s but then seemed to drop it, does not discuss his religious beliefs these days. But spiritual themes have always resonated in his music, and advance reviews call his new album, "Time Out of Mind," a searching examination of mortality.

After singing "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" for the pope, Dylan doffed his white cowboy hat, ascended the dais and bowed slightly. Then, as his new fan rose, the singer clasped the pope's trembling hands.

* NO 'TIME' LIKE THE PRESENT: Bob Dylan's new album is despairing, playful, long--and at times brilliant. Calendar, Page 7

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