The Stillness of John Paul

Rome is getting ready for the May 1 Mass when Pope Benedict XVI will raise Pope John Paul II to the honors of the the altars. A Jewish composer remembers when he prayed with John Paul…

By Robert Moynihan

As the world mourns the tragic events in Japan, where a March 11 earthquake and tsunami killed tens of thousands and where a nuclear plant threatens to poison a large area of that beautiful country with radioactivity, Rome is preparing for the Beatification of Pope John Paul II on May 1 in St. Peter’s Square.

There are two types of preparation for this event. The first is material: how to handle the hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, who will descend on Rome for the occasion. The second is spiritual : how to understand the true essence of Karol Wojtyla — Pope John Paul II — and how, understanding him, we may draw closer to Christ and more able to live the Christian life with joy.

In an interview published by Zenit on March 31 entitled “The Polish Pope’s Maestro,” the American Jewish conductor Sir Gilbert Levine told journalist Kathleen Naab what Pope John Paul II meant to him personally. His recollections may serve to help all of us recall who John Paul truly was.

When Levine took the job of Artistic Director and Conductor of the Krakow Philharmonic in 1987, he had no idea his decision would lead to his becoming the “Pope’s Maestro.” But when John Paul learned of this young American Jewish conductor in Poland, the seeds of a plan were planted — a plan that would become a 17-year spiritual friendship and collaboration in the rapprochement of Catholics and Jews. (Levine tells of his experiences in his memoir, The Pope’s Maestro.)

“I came, we came, to view music as a way to bridge the remarkable history, much of it pained, between Catholics and Jews,” Levine said. “What he believed — and believed powerfully — was that my music and my art, could be, as he called it, a way of addressing these deep hurts in the human soul, in the fabric of human relations, and can be a wordless way to find ourselves at one with the other.”

Levine said he believes John Paul was especially chosen by God to help overcome the divisions between Christians and Jews.

“I believe it profoundly,” Levine said, “because of where he came from, because he came from Wadowice, because he came from Poland, and because he came from the country that had witnessed the murder of millions of Jews. He was uniquely in a position to understand that. He witnessed it. He suffered under the German occupation. There were Polish priests who were murdered, many of them his friends, rounded up and murdered. He knew what the Holocaust was firsthand, watching it from the other side of the barbed wire fence. I believed that if anyone could do it, he could do it.” And he says he told the Pope that when they met.

“And the crazy thing was — not crazy — the incredibly impacting thing was that he didn’t say a word. He just looked down and was incredibly thoughtful for the longest time. I was sure that I had said the most ridiculous thing to him, that it was a preposterous thing to have said, and that he was waiting to be saved by his papal staff who would get rid of this strange interloper. I think it must have struck a chord that was in fact a voice that was deep in the Pope’s own soul, that maybe there’s something that can be done with this. This strange American has arrived in Poland and maybe he has a role to play. John Paul must have thought that, because instead of throwing me out and never seeing me again, it was the beginning of this spiritual friendship that developed over the next 17 years. Looking back at it, it was as we say in Yiddish, bashert, it was fated, but who would have known? Who could have imagined it? But he knew. He knew because his vision was so incredibly clear. There’s a picture which you may have seen of him standing on top of a mountain looking out over the Judean hills in his trip to Israel in 2000 and that’s how I see John Paul — as a visionary, a person who looked beyond the valleys and the difficulties, to where the next peak is.”

Levine then told of praying with the Pope. “It was astonishing, astonishing,” Levine said. “[Israeli] Prime Minister Rabin had been assassinated. I was meant to go to the Vatican and visit with various people about the projects I was working on. I went to see Monsignor Dziwisz and told him I’d just arrived, and he [Monsignor Dziwisz] asked if I could come to St. Peter’s Basilica. I was extremely quizzical because I had never been asked to do that. And to make a very long story — but an amazing story — short, I was ushered into the Pope’s private chapel inside St. Peter’s where he was praying silently, sitting on a chair facing a crucifix on the wall.

“I was positioned to look into him, into his closed eyes — and not towards the wall — and he had wished that. He had thought about that and wished me to pray with him silently. I was drawn powerfully into his prayer.

“People talk about the incredible amounts of time he spent praying alone, sometimes prostrate on the floor, in deep prayer, and this was something like that. An incredible, powerful, private prayer.

“I went through the prayers in my Jewish background and then the prayer became music and I imagined the Adagio of the Bruckner 9th Symphony, which to me is just wordless communication between Bruckner and his God. Then the Pope was moved forward to kneel on a prie dieu and he was helped by Monsignor Dziwisz to do that. He didn’t look at me — never looked at me — but the connection between us never broke. I was drawn even more deeply into his prayer, into his profound… stillness. There was an incredible stillness in that room…

“And then, finally, the Pope got up and came to me, reached out his hands to me, grabbed my hands in his and looked me straight in the eye with such power that I closed my eyes. I couldn’t even look him in the eye. And he said, ‘With him gone, can there be peace?’ And he was praying, I think, for the soul of Itzhak Rabin, for the peoples of Israel and Palestine, for the tragedy of the Holy Land that has been the lack of peace there, and it was just absolutely amazing…

“I called Monsignor Dziwisz at the end of the day and said, ‘What was that?’ and he said, ‘Don’t you know, Maestro, we pray to the same God?’ And he had planned the whole thing — the Pope had.
“I always had the impression of John Paul — that it was this incredible stillness, this mystical union that was most profound for him, and in that, we could share. Because it wasn’t about Catholic prayer anymore, and it wasn’t about Jewish prayer anymore. It was about our common devotion to one God.”

Editorial, April 2011

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