New Digital Organ in St. Peter’s Basilica

Allen Organ Company of Macungie, Pennsylvania (near Allentown) has donated a digital organ for use at papal celebrations in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican News reports. The organ made its debut on December 24 at the Mass During the Night (popularly known as “Midnight Mass,” though it oftentimes begins before midnight) celebrated by Pope Francis.

The four-manual pipe organ built 1954-1962 by the firm of Giovanni Tamburini remains in use for smaller celebrations held at the Altar of the Chair. “It is truly perfect for that space in all its breadth, through the real sound of the pipes, without requiring amplification,” Sistine Choir director Msgr. Palombella said.

The difficulty is that this organ had to be amplified in order to fill the basilica and St. Peter’s Square, which cased frequency distortion and problems related to background noise.

The challenge of filling St. Peter’s Basilica with organ music came about only after the Second Vatican Council. “Before Vatican II,” Msgr. Palombella explains, “papal celebrations were held in the Sistine Chapel, and the problem with broadcasting internationally or using microphones didn’t yet exist.”

Incidentally, James Goettsche of Omaha, Nebraska is Vatican organist since 1989. He is fluent in eleven languages.

French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll (1811-1899), whom some consider the greatest organ builder of all time, developed in the 19th century a proposal for St. Peter’s Basilica which would have been the largest-ever mechanical-action organ in the world. But Italian politics got in the way. After the unification of Italy in 1871, against the bitter opposition of the popes, St. Peter’s Basilica stood within Italian rather than Vatican territory. The Italian state did not allow the installation of an organ at the eastern wall of the basilica. (The situation was  normalized only in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty between the Vatican and the Italian state under Mussolini.)

Relations are markedly better than they were in the 19th century between the Holy See and modern states and societies. As Vatican News writes:

The digital organ of St. Peter’s Basilica is a new way of responding musically to the challenges set out by the Second Vatican Council for a Church willing to dialogue with the contemporary world and always seeking to broadcast the beauty and living reality of tradition.




  1. James Goettsche has not been Vatican organist for a number of years. The titular organist of the Pontifical Sistine Chapel Choir is Maestro Joan Paradell Soli, a Catalonian and a charming man who speaks several languages.

    The large Tamburini behind the main altar in St Peter’s has never been adequate for the space. From the rear end of the basilica it is scarcely audible without amplification. Even at the main altar, full organ can be pretty much drowned out by the sound of an excited congregation chattering at the end of a big service. That being said, it is far from clear that an electronic organ is the way to go (except perhaps for music that needs to be broadcast onto the Piazza), and even less clear that an Allen would be the instrument of choice.

    Firms have been lining up for many years to donate not one but four new pipe organs to St Peter’s, each one a massive “swallows’ nest” hanging from the four large pillars that form the crossing around the main altar, each organ speaking down the space almost opposite:— two transepts, the main nave, and the altar of the chair behind, all controlled from one console. This solution would of course entail substantial engineering works that an electronic instrument does not require, and would need an amount of maintenance, but it would give a far more satisfactory result than any number of loudspeakers dispersed around the huge space and outside.

    1. That’s interesting, Paul, to hear who the titular organist of the Pontifical Sistine Chapel Choir is. But I believe that Goettsche was titular organist rather of the Basilica of St. Peter. Does he not hold that title? Do you know who his successor is? Wikipedia in both Italian and German have him as the basilica organist still.

      And this Vatican website still has Goettsche as organist for papal liturgies:


    2. Good analysis Paul Inwood. I think 3 organs would more than suffice. The problem with St Peter’s is 1) there is no strong practuce of congregational singing requiring a large gallery organ, 2) there is no set choir location so placement of a choir organ is a bit of a challenge and 3) a study of the organ needs should be made that coincides with the Basilica’s type of worship which differs from how we worship in the Western world. The Tamburini organ met the requirements for mainly Choir performance pre-Vatican II. The design of the case limited projection of sound however. We don’t want to end up with a useless oversized Crystal Cathedral organ (built by a Italian firm by the way). Multiple oversized organs such as Milan or Cologne or Freiburg are not necessarily the answer. However, digital is not the answer either. And another factor is that the architecture should be respected as well. Drab modern organ cases have no place at St. Peter’s as well

  2. Perhaps this is a solution for the St. Peter’s square and broadcast situation. It certainly doesn’t provide the most noble example for the rest of the Church. In light of how the art of organ building has developed in recent decades, might the time be also ripe for realizing Cavaille-Coll’s dream? Perhaps St. Peter’s Basilica could draw inspiration from other basilicas, cathedrals (and abbeys) that have participated in the modern renaissance of this millennium-old sacred art.

  3. It is indeed confounding that St. Peter’s remains one of the only major churches in the world without a grand and stately organ, even after Vatican II so authoritatively lauded its importance to Catholic liturgy in Sacrosanctum Concillium (my small parish church has a larger organ than St. Peter’s). I suspect at least part of this could be due to a relatively weak organ building tradition in Italy compared to the rest of western Europe. The technology for such a sufficiently large organ was around even before Cavaillé-Coll’s day, as he built a number of large organs throughout France including the beast at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I’m glad Allen is stepping in to provide some needed volume and presence in St. Peter’s, though I hope this just a stopgap to more grand and permanent solution.

    1. I am really surprised that the firm of Fratellli Ruffati hasn’t tried to get one of their fabulous instruments into The Basilica!

  4. Both Goettsche and Paradell are listed on that website. As far as I know, only Paradell plays, since the Sistina sings at all papal liturgies. My information is that Goettsche has not been seen for a number of years. Perhaps the website needs updating.

  5. One reason for the lack of “organic” action in St Peter’s is the number of Vatican agencies — seven, I think — who control different aspects of the operation of the basilica. Getting them all to agree on anything is virtually impossible, it seems.

  6. Equally interesting would be to know if there are formal position descriptions for either organist post. How were they formally selected, if at all? Is there any declarative statement on what the position(s) should or could be? Any, however eventual, goals?

    Also, questions of voicing, disposition, etc. We all know how beautifully some of the antiques fill huge spaces in Italian churches quite successfully with relatively few registers and low wind pressures. Might a commission(been tried, I know), come up with an altar area instrument based on older principles and a mighty processional instrument a al Cavaille-Coll in the rear?

  7. Too bad that they chose to ignore what is says in the Vatican II documents. “the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem”. I had the misfortune to play electronic imitations for 12 years. Never thought that I would say this, but I would rather play a real (acoustic) piano. Of course that would be ridiculous at St. Peter’s. But, wake up people. It is the situation in many parishes in the United States. Part of the problem is dry, if not dead acoustic in so many churches built after Vatican II.

  8. What matters to most worshippers is the sound they hear. They could care less as to what technology is producing it. In 1963, digital organs did not exist and so the council fathers mention only that which they knew. I’ve been attending NPM meeting for decades and have always noticed a number of pipe organ aficionados who looked down on those who create sounds with “lesser” instruments.

    1. “Tabulatum” was added to “organum” in the final redaction of the 1963 document. For some context, consider the following paragraphs from De musica sacra et sacra liturgia from 1958:

      61. The principal musical instrument for solemn liturgical ceremonies of the Latin Church has been and remains the classic pipe organ (organum classicum, seu tabulatum).
      62. An organ destined for liturgical use, even if small, should be designed according to the norms of organ building, and be equipped with the type of pipes suitable for sacred use. Before it is to be used it should be properly blessed, and as a sacred object, receive proper care.
      63. Besides the classic organ, the harmonium or reed organ may also be used provided that its tonal quality and volume are suitable for sacred use.
      64. As a substitute, the electronic organ (illud vero adsimulatum organum, quod “electrophonicum” vocant) may be tolerated temporarily for liturgical functions, if the means for obtaining even a small pipe organ are not available. In each case, however, the explicit permission of the local Ordinary is required. He, on his part, should consult the diocesan commission on sacred music, and others trained in this field, who can make suggestions for rendering such an instrument more suitable for sacred use.

    2. I have played some excellent digital/electronic substitutes and they are a good choice when a pipe organ is not possible. The thing is, the church looks to St. Peter’s to set the tone as it were, and theirs should be the highest standard. I will consider though, perhaps this instrument could be rolled outside for outdoor masses and that makes sense, but I would hope that a pipe organ would be a more ultimate and eventual choice for the purpose in the nave. Allen would have been far from an ideal choice in my mind. They have an unethical remark in one of their demo videos that states that “the pipe organ is no longer plausible because of cost and size”. It used to be “when” But Allen is gladly showing the pipe organ as a dinosaur. I am the least worthy to give opinion but there it is.

  9. We have an Allen here that is about 20 years old. It was acquired before I got here. The technology has been far surpassed. Although they paid around $50K for it, it can no longer be suitably maintained. The “voice” and “adjusting” is done using a small non-static plastic screwdriver and turning very small potentiometers; there are a couple dozen computer cards each of which has about half dozen potentiometers. There are about 75 such adjustments that can be made, regulating the loudness of various stops within various ranges of the keyboard. For about $200 we can have somebody come and “revoice” or “adjust” the voicing. After doing so, it will sound great for about an hour. It’s a hard sell trying to replace a $50K “instrument” only 20 years after it was installed. So long as the basilica is getting a free appliance, I guess that’s okay; but I would not expect it to last more than 12 – 15 years.

  10. The Cavaille-Coll proposal was for the back wall. Why not consider that a feasible location now? If it’s mechanical action, that would require the services of two organists. It’s true that the present Tamburini organ is woefully inadequate, even for Masses at the chair. It’s just a woeful organ period. I don’t like Maestro Palombella’s implication that the electronic organ is necessary because of Vatican II – that is far from the case. They don’t exactly do a lot of metrical hymnody there anyhow. Besides, Vatican II told us that “the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem.” This is not a pipe organ, so I for one will not hold it in high esteem. It deserves the same regard as my little office Yamaha Clavinova. I assume that “pipe organ” is an accurate translation of the Latin? Maybe the Vatican officials should read Kevin Vogt’s excellent piece on the theology of the pipe organ:

  11. When I was a teenager, my brand new church in Walnut Creek, CA installed an electronic organ for the sanctuary. It lasted only 5 years… then they got another… then another… and yet again another.
    It wasn’t until the entire music staff changed (including my hire) that we decided enough was enough. We convinced the the people of our church that a (much) more expensive pipe organ was a far better investment and would actually last longer than the building itself. We commissioned Mark Lively to build his first instrument west of the Mississippi.
    That one investment changed the entire music ministry for the better. We blended the contemporary music and the traditional music together and the divisions among the people disappeared after a couple of years. I am absolutely sold on pipe organs.

  12. I’ve never heard of anyone who looked down on a pipe organ, how strange. I find the reports on short-lived electronic instruments as incredulous. We upgraded to a three manual Rodgers but the two manual it replaced is still providing another community with joyful noise. We have a 20 year old Kurzweil that continues to serve us well.

    1. We had a 2 manual Allen that a philistine of a priest got rid of in favour of a clavinova.
      How do these people get through basic training?

      1. They get through basic training where they are told they are ontologically different from those who are merely priestly people by virtue of baptism. From this some of them draw the conclusion, often not opposed by their bishops, that ordination to the priesthood gives them the kind of superior knowledge and skills by which they can make every conceivable decision that needs to be made in “serving” a parish. They would say “running” the parish.

      2. There is no “training.” In most American seminaries, they get a single semester of homiletics (preaching) and a single course on liturgics. Of course, the radicals spend all three years learning how to hold their fingers properly at the Institution. They can’t balance a checking account, lead a parish advisory board, or manage the ten-thousand things that are a part of leading a parish: but they know when to curtsy.

  13. Some might say “running a parish.” Our experience of that man was that he was busy ruining the parish. Sunday attendance plummeted during his tenure.

    1. If you have not noticed, Sunday attendance has been plummeting for 50 years. It seems clear that what we have been doing during this time is not working.

      1. Fr. Forte, I am sorry, but your observation here is a non sequitur. The fact that a particular priest succeeded in driving away his congregation by arrogant behavior is a well known phenomenon, and easily pegged for what it is. It does not depend on larger trends, except for one: people no longer believe they must remain in their geographical parish, and they do feel free to flee to another parish if theirs is being run in a manner they find intolerable.

      2. Rita,
        Your comment about arrogant priests works both ways. How many Catholics have stop going to Mass because they no longer recognize anything that resembles a traditional liturgy? For 50 years those who have wished to worship in a more traditional manner, which possible even in the new Mass, have been treated as bastard children. This is by far the greater problem. Do you not recognize this same arrogance that has plagued the Church with the implementations of the reformed liturgy?

      3. “people no longer believe they must remain in their geographical parish”

        Because, of course, they don’t have to any more. The 1983 Code of Canon Law opened the gates to that one. As well as to pastors no longer having life tenure, which, while it can offer a light at the end of the dark tunnel for long-suffering congregations, also means pastors are freer to spoil their soup pot without having to stay and eat out of if for the rest of their life. Roving pastors beget roving congregations. And, unfortunately, this is true across the spectrum of erstwhile ideology; clerical destruction knows no ideological ghetto.

      4. Fr. Forte,
        Regarding reformed liturgy and plummeting church attendance: correlation is not causation.
        And even if it were – the Catholic Church reformed the liturgy out of Christian conviction, and we must be faithful to our convictions over and above worldly notions of institutional success. Vatican II is simply what the Roman Catholic Church believes.

      5. Fr. Anthony,
        Denying the effects of the liturgical reforms (as implemented on the ground) is too fatuous and a denial of reality. Regarding our need to follow the reforms of Vatican II, you continue to ignore the point that I have been constantly trying to make. If we take, as we must, the reformed Novus Ordo Missae as the standard for the reform, then there is plenty of room for a traditional form of the Mass.

        My complaint is not with the new Mass per se, but with a truncated form of it which de facto suppresses those options for a traditional form of the liturgy and imposes one that is alien and offensive to many Catholics. Nor am I saying that the traditional options should be mandated or that the newer options should be suppressed. One hallmark of the reformed Mass is the latitude it gives in the manner that it is celebrated. All I have called for is that the traditional form that is imbedded in it be recognized as valid and given its rightful place along side the newer options. This is not a denial of Vatican II or a “Reform of the Reform;” it is the Reform.

      6. Fr. Forte,
        No, I do not see this “going both ways” in Mr. Johnson’s comment, which is what we are talking about. You are, in fact, changing the subject. You are doing this in order to ride your hobby horse about the reform. My point is that what you are saying is a non sequitur. It does not respond to what Mr. Johnson said.

        Karl Liam,
        Thanks for the additional observations about people and priests changing parishes. I think what you have said is apt and relevant to the topic at hand.

      7. I apologize for continuing this “non-sequitur” thread, but I must say I find these broad brush attacks on our “arrogant” priests incredibly concerning. I can’t speak to what Alan and Rita have experienced in their own communities, but the Church’s demand for charity and trust between clergy and laity requires both parties.

        Our parish priests today are more overworked than ever, and many are tasked with saving parishes that face almost insurmountable challenges, often involving financial mismanagement and heterodox catechesis. By the time new bishops or pastors finally gird up the courage to address these problems, they’ve often been allowed to continue for decades to the point that conflict is inevitable and bitter. No one likes to be told they’ve been doing it all wrong for decades, but ignoring the issue isn’t pastoral, it’s a betrayal of their ministry and their congregation.

        To be fair, not every priest or bishop tackles these problems with as much charity or sensitivity as they should (my former archbishop comes to mind), but sometimes it takes a heavy hand to wright a sinking ship. I’ve personally butted heads with my priests countless times, but they are our priests and they need our support. I don’t know where all this fits in with the new Allen organ at St. Peter’s, but I hope this contributes in some way.

  14. I am sure Fr Anthony will be delighted that the congregation climbed back to its previous level when that particular priest moved on and was replaced by a more pastoral one. And it is still climbing “despite” having a main Sunday Mass where the music is guitar based and where the presence of children is welcomed.
    Whereas the church nearby which is staffed by priests of the Institute of Christ the King who use only the EF struggles to get a combined total of 50 people at its Sunday masses, despite people travelling from far and wide.
    Coincidental, I’m sure.

  15. A touch of subject drift: I am thankful and joyful that a parish in our archdiocese has acquired a 1921 E.M. Skinner that is complete and awaiting restoration. St. Thomas More parish in Norman, OK acquired it for their soon to be constructed edifice. Now THAT’S stewardship, and a superior response to the need of a new organ.

  16. I am greatly bemused by the string of comments above fixating on the glory of using organ music for worship. After serving for 32 years as Director of Music Ministries at a Catholic Church whose parishioners had jettisoned a small pipe organ that we had “inherited” from a vaudeville theatre via way of a funeral home when they built a new worship space, the “newest” pastor, “mind melded” with an older parishioner from a nearby antique archdiocese and declared that we could not function as a legitimate Catholic Church without an organ. At the time, we had a perfectly vibrant music program with +/-75 folks in three standing choirs, seasonal children’s choirs, and used a baby grand and contemporary instrumentation of bass, drums, flute, bass clarinet/sax, guitars and other instruments that joined seasonally. We had one of the best and most revered programs in our diocese. Without consulting me – or any of my parish- based keyboard players – the pastor went out and contracted for an Allen digital organ that he and the development director picked out (and neither of them plays any keyboard) – and then he spent multiple months telling the congregation how much they would benefit from the “sacred music” coming from an organ and how the envelopes for the MUST HAVE organ donation were in each of the pews -over and over and over. Made most of my musicians feel used and abused – to where I am down to myself and two ladies who serve at masses other than our live streamed one, and three cantors. Both choirs basically quit and that was before Covid hit. Up to that point, all our musical equipment – including our baby grand – had been purchased and donated by the musicians who used them. This relentless push to an organ – and not even a pipe organ – really frosted pretty much the entire music ministry, as put in writing by my guitarist who wrote that there was no way he could compete with an organ, so he up and moved from the parish to the other end of the state.

  17. Perhaps a bit late to point this out but –
    Allen organ in St. Peter – Rome has been removed
    10-05-2019, 05:02 AM
    These are the words of the press release:

    “During the papal celebrations, the great pipe organ of the Basilica will be used again in front of the Altar of the Chair.
    As everyone knows, the electronic instrument was wanted by the ex-director of the choir, Don Massimo Palombella, and my repeated attempts to get it removed were of no avail.
    I reiterate my subsequent “obedience” to a decision that I never approved.
    Recently, after the “resignation” of Palombella, I renewed my opinion, shared by the whole organ world, to remove the electronic Allen so that the pipe organ present in the Basilica can find the right honor it deserves, namely the function of the pipe organ in the liturgy to “add splendor to the ceremonies of the Church and powerfully elevate souls to God”.
    Thanks to the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supremo Pontefice and in particular to Monsignor Maestro Guido Marini who has shown himself to be particularly sensitive to the issue and promptly disposed in this regard.”

    Juan Paradell Solé
    Organista titolare della Cappella Musicale Pontificia Sistina

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.