One of the more unlikely encounters of modern times happened here Saturday: Bob Dylan played for Pope John Paul II.
The event, highlight of a weeklong religious congress, was billed as a chance for the 77-year-old pope to spend time with young people "and their music."
Sitting on a raised dais on one side of an open-air stage, he saluted the performers, who included the Harlem Gospel Singers belting out a rousing version of Amen.
And when he spoke to the crowd of 200,000, John Paul used a classic Dylan song, Blowin' in the Wind, to make his point.
The answer, he said, is indeed blowing in the wind, "the wind that is the breath and life of the Holy Spirit, the voice that calls and says "Come!' "
"You've asked me: "How many roads must a man walk down before he becomes a man,' " he continued, still quoting from the song.
"I answer you: One! There is only one road for man, and it is Christ, who said "I am the life.' "
A few seconds later, Dylan swung into Knocking on Heaven's Door. The crowd went wild.
One more number, Hard Rain, and Dylan suddenly swept off his white cowboy hat and ascended the stairs of the dais. The pope rose to meet him and, as Dylan bowed his head slightly, they clasped hands.
Then the pope thanked the crowd and left.
They seemed an unlikely pairing, the pope and the rock 'n' roll troubadour; the embodiment of authority and the quintessential anti-authoritarian. But they share a preoccupation with mortality and morality.
Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, was a key member of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which brought about sweeping reforms in the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, Robert Zimmerman, the future musical legend, was writing songs that for many defined the times.
In 1964, Dylan released his seminal album, The Times They Are A-Changin'. It became the anthem of a generation. The same year, Wojtyla was elevated to archbishop of Krakow in a Poland still lashed firmly to the Soviet orbit.
In 1978, Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II and helped to break the Soviet stranglehold. Meanwhile, the Jewish-born rock rebel stunned fans by embracing born-again Christianity. Dylan proclaimed his new faith in the 1979 gospel album Slow Train Coming.
But the evangelical tone faded. Whether Dylan is still a Christian is a topic of intense debate in some circles; some say there are signs he has returned to his Jewish roots. The singer/songwriter refuses to discuss the issue.
The Italian church called the Bologna concert a landmark, a first _ and by its own admission, belated _ attempt to reach out with pop music. The church plans a CD called Hope Music, including cuts by many of the Italian stars who performed Saturday night.
Going into its third millennium, the church will emerge from its "curtain of incense," said Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, archbishop of Bologna, and "walk in the world."