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Catholic in America: Jewish Conductor Recalls Powerful Influence of St. John Paul II

The Michigan Catholic

March 31, 2015

Al Kresta

“Music comes where words fail” said St. John Paul II to American Jewish conductor Sir Gilbert Levine. I recently interviewed Levine and delighted in his story of their relationship and collaboration. It was wonderfully improbable and bore all the markings of a providential appointment.

A Brooklyn-born Jew, Levine was 40 years old before he ever met a Catholic priest. In February 1988, John Paul II became his third priestly acquaintance. Levine had just taken over the Krakow Philharmonic, the first Westerner to lead a major musical institution in the Soviet sphere. John Paul II, former archbishop of Krakow, took notice. The conductor’s parents had emigrated to America from pre-war Poland, where his mother-in-law had survived Auschwitz. By war’s end, some 40 relatives had perished in the Holocaust. Karol Wojtyla befriended and played soccer with Jewish schoolmates. Wojtyla lost many of these friends and acquaintances in the war.

Levine said his 1988 visit to the Vatican was supposed to be nothing more than a standard meet and greet with the pope. The pope, apparently eager for Krakow news, however, ushered Levine into his private library and asked, “How are you treating my orchestra?” At ease with the pope’s affability, Levine allowed his Brooklyn brashness and Jewish chutzpah to strain the limits of polite conversation. He told the Vicar of Christ that God had destined the Polish pontiff to heal Jewish/Catholic tensions. “I believe God put you on this Earth to make things better between your people and mine.” To Levine’s consternation, John Paul II stopped talking and looked down, never replying directly. Little did he know, the pope’s silence wasn’t snubbing the idea but giving it deep consideration.

Later, the pope would ask Levine to conduct a concert in honor of his 10th anniversary as pope and, then, at World Youth Day in Denver. The relationship grew in warmth and respect. But three years passed before Levine proposed an idea to hold a concert in Rome to commemorate the “Shoah,” Hebrew for the Holocaust. Would the pope attend?

“His Holiness’ reaction had been instantaneously positive; I was as elated as I was amazed by [his] rapid assent. There was no equivocation. There was no ‘Yes, well, interesting. Let us think about it.’ The pope had said yes to the Shoah concert immediately, and now we were on our way,” he wrote in his memoir, “The Pope’s Maestro.” Enthused, John Paul II then proposed holding it right in the Vatican.

Some prominent and influential Catholics and Jews were appalled by the idea and feared the possible missteps that could further antagonize the fragile relationship. “There was incredible mistrust. Every Jew thought I was a sellout for having a relationship with a Polish pope,” wrote Levine. Some Vatican officials fought the plan to seat John Paul II and the chief rabbi of Rome, Rav Toaff, on chairs of equal size.

Three years earlier, Levine’s chutzpah had prophesied that John Paul’s destiny was to help unite their two peoples. What he didn’t know was that Karol Wojtyla had long desired to heal those wounds inflicted by Christian anti-Judaism on God’s original covenant people. He had made the first official papal visit to a synagogue in 1986 and had pushed to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. He would also go on to oversee the Vatican publication of “We Remember: A Reflection On The Shoah.” He wanted to know if survivors would be willing to attend. Overcoming some official Jewish resistance, Levine arranged for 150 survivors to greet the pontiff on the day of the concert. John Paul, frustrating those in charge of his schedule, insisted on talking to each one individually in their own tongue, including Levine’s mother-in-law who shined as the pope told her, “Your son-in-law has made great contributions to this day. He has done so much. You should be very proud of him.”

Finally, the preparations and rehearsals ended and Levine walked onto the stage at the Sala Nervi to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on April 7, 1994, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. That night six survivors lit the candles on the menorah in front of the concert platform in remembrance of their murdered relatives and the 6 million Jews. The president of Italy, the chief rabbi of Rome and the pope of the Catholic Church sat together on three equal thrones atop a Persian carpet.

Eleven years later, the night remains unforgettable, the summit of Levine’s professional career. The day after the Shoah concert, thanks and commendations flowed in from all over the world, even from those organizations that had initially opposed it. John Paul II’s maxim proved true: “Music comes where words fail.”

Sir Gilbert told me his providential 17-year collaboration with John Paul II had changed his life forever. In gratitude, he continues to extend the pope’s legacy allowing music to work where words so often fail. This Easter season American Public Television and the WFMT radio network will be broadcasting Sir Gilbert Levine conducting “A Celebration of Peace Through Music,” a moving two-hour commemoration of Sts. John XXIII and John Paul II. The program was originally performed at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in celebration of John XXIII and John Paul II canonized together by Pope Francis in 2014. During our interview, he described how each musical selection on the program bore direct relevance to the lives and ministries of both saints and today’s successor to St. Peter, Pope Francis.

I, for one, am anxiously awaiting this event and praying for this music to work peace in a world more desperately in need of harmony and concord than at any previous time in my life. Listen with me.

Al Kresta is president and CEO of Ave Maria Communications in Ann Arbor. His radio program, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” can be heard from 4-6 p.m. daily on 990 AM-WDEO and EWTN.


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