Petition to Cardinal Sarah against the Digital Organ in St. Peter’s Basilica

The Associazione Italiana Organari has addressed to Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the CDW, an appeal for a pipe organ in St. Peter’s Basilica. The petition can be found here, and the text in English can be found further below.

An Allen digital organ was recently installed and first used at Christmas Mass in the Night, as Pray Tell reported. The petition uses strong words to oppose this. This is unfortunate. The language is is polemical, elitist, insulting, and redolent of a “Reform of the Reform” viewpoint that puts aesthetics before all else. It need not have been so, and I would have welcomed a petition written more responsibly. (It gets a bit better near the end.)

But it’s the only petition out there. I signed it.

Allen Organ Company has several press releases and stories about the new digital organ here. Spoiler alert: they’re in favor.


*               *               *               *               *

To the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments
Cremona, January 5, 2018

Very Reverend Eminence,

The installation of a “digital organ” in St. Peter’s Basilica inside the Vatican, the highest symbol of Christianity, has aroused disbelief among musicians, builders of musical instruments, music lovers, art historians, and also among Italian and European organists and organbuilders.

This organ substitute, which imitates the “console” of a real organ in its features, awkwardly tries to imitate the sonority of the real instrument, without however succeeding in any way. Mainly for this reason, its presence is inadequate to the dignity of Saint Peter’s, and in general of the Church which for centuries has promoted the finest artistic production in terms of painting, sculpture, architecture and music, educating the aesthetic sense of all, believers or non-believers.

The presence of the electronic instrument in the Papal Basilica appears to us as  a sign of the cultural decadence  of our time, since it represents fiction rather than truth.

There are several pronouncements of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church about the importance of art and  beauty as useful instruments to celebrate God. We would like to recall, for example, what  His Holiness Paul VI said fifty years ago, during his homily  at the “Mass of the artists” celebrated on May 7, 1964 in the Sistine Chapel:  he referred to the church’s action of having used  “surrogates, oleography, the work of art of few merits and little expense”, thus renouncing, for contingent reasons, “to accomplish great things, beautiful things, new things, things worthy of being admired “.

It is regrettable to note that today, around half a century after this inspirational homily, once again a substitute is used to “imitate” one of the arts that most  generates deep emotions and elevates  the soul to God: music.

In spite of  the reasons that led to the placement and use of a digital organ inside the Papal Basilica, and of the complex and special liturgical needs of St. Peter’s, it is very hard for us to believe that a solution which does not involve the even partial exclusion of the real pipe organ in favor of the digital one cannot be found.

As  pipe organbuilders and restorers we have the opportunity to meet many Christian communities in every part of the world, who make important efforts to provide their churches with real pipe organs. At the same time we are saddened to witness that the choice made in the Papal Basilica seems to minimize the great value of such efforts.

For this reason, the Italian Association of Organ builders (A.I.O.) calls the whole  cultural world to express its regret for the presence of the surrogate of an authentic musical instrument within the most important home of Catholicism, and  to communicate it to those responsible for the liturgical celebrations not only in Saint Peter’s Basilica but in all Catholic Churches.

At the same time, the promoters of this plea  make themselves available to identify an effective method for defining possible alternate solutions so that, in accordance with the Sacred Music Concilium Constitution statement about sacred music (number 120), mostly and above all in the papal Archbasilica of Saint Peter’s “In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things”.

Feeling confident that His Eminence will give due consideration to our appeal, we present deferential greetings.


  1. Excuse me …

    ‘The Vatican, the highest symbol of Christianity’ ?????

    In the famous words of John McEnroe ‘You can’t be serious!’

    Robert Byron, the Great Travel writer of the inter War period, compared the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to the Vatican Basilica. He wrote that whereas Hagia Sophia was patently the Temple of the Living God, St. Peter’s was ‘merely a salon for his agents.’

    Roguishly, one might suggest that a digital organ would be exactly the right thing for St. Peter’s.


    1. Exactly, Alan. That line also caught my eye.
      Thinking that St. Peter’s Basilica is the highest symbol of Christianity reinforces my impression that this thing was conceived by a bunch of musicians who don’t really get theology or liturgy.
      But as I say, I signed it.

      1. “massimo tempio” should not be translated as “highest symbol”; “greatest (or biggest) church,” perhaps.

    2. Although Robert Byron was a superb travel writer, I don’t know if I’d place much faith in his pronouncements. After all he was the fellow who advocated the modern pronunciation for Ancient Greek. That usage wipes out the beauty of the Greek vowels, IMHO.

      Moreover the Holy Liturgy is still celebrated in S. Peter’s. Try serving one in Hagia Sophia today!

    3. Yes, and given the state of today’s liturgy in so many places, wouldn’t a Les Paul and Mary Ford type of echo chamber be appropriate for the Sistine choir?.

  2. In paragraph 6, shouldn’t “exclusion” be “inclusion”? I am not sure it makes sense as it stands.

    Although they could or should have found more fitting language to speak of the significance and importance of St. Peter’s basilica, I think their point is clear enough. To me it did not savor of “reform of the reform” — after all, they begin with a quote from Paul VI!

    1. Fair enough Rita. The association I made is a bit of a stretch. I had in mind the essentialism of their argumentation, which starts with cultural monuments to be preserved and then moves from that to liturgical and theological justifications. That’s how I made that leap. Maybe I should just call that aestheticism.

      1. Or, being Italian, which may not view the categories as rigidly distinct….

        That said, a larger question may be: is St Peter’s basilica a place where the *typical expectations* regarding active congregational participation by singing and speaking in the reformed liturgy are likely to be well met, given its acoustical properties? I’ve never been in it with a full congregation, so I cannot say from personal experience. But, the many times I have been in it, it has struck me as a place where those expectations are not likely to be fulfilled well. (S Maria Maggiore, by contrast, does work acoustically – it’s a brilliant space in so many ways as large Roman Catholic church spaces go.)

  3. You signed a petition assailing the installation of a digital organ at St. Peter’s? Would you have signed a petition against electric lights, pews, modern plumbing?

    1. No, Jack – those are different things and I’m not opposed to any of them.

      Here’s the comment I sent when asked by one media outlet. We’ll see what they do with it:
      “Digital organs are not intrinsically bad – they are products of human technology just as are pipe organs, and in some cases they are the best solution. But not in St. Peter’s, where a large, mighty pipe organ would be possible and would sound much better. That’s why I signed the petition, though I didn’t like its overall tone. I hope respectful pushback can help make the digital organ in St. Peter’s temporary.”


    2. You’re obviously not a musician, or a very good one, are you?
      (The moral of this saga is near the bottom!! Stick with it!!)

      And if you ARE, like a recently departed friend of mine, (he played music, note-for-note, as stoic and as lifeless as he most likely possibly could.), you have no passion. Congratulations! You blend in with the REST of today’s world. You’re “RELEVANT”!! (Oh, how I hate that word!!!)

      “To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable.”
      – Ludwig Van Beethoven

      In a small, 1,700 sq ft home, I have:
      2 acoustic, full-size pianos. I had 3.
      3 full size DIGITAL pianos – 88 keys.
      2 vintage electric (Not digital or electronic!) Rhodes pianos. (a 1973 and a 1979)
      1 vintage electric (again, NOT electronic) 1966 Wurlitzer 140B piano.
      THREE Hammond B3 organs, each with its own separate Leslie speaker
      One smaller, COMPLETELY digital instrument that emulates everything in my music studio:
      It does acoustic pianos, eerily well, both vintage electric Wurlitzer and Rhodes pianos, but its main purpose is to emulate a Hammond B3 organ and all the many nuances that make a Hammond B3 what it is. Even professional techs that have been working on Hammonds for 60 years can no longer tell the difference between THIS digital (and a couple others) and the “real thing.”
      …and I have MANY other instruments, including a 6-keyboard MIDI setup that is attached to 2 dedicated music computers, amps, mixers, etc, all in my own music studio.

      I said all that to say this:
      I have BOTH, digital AND vintage, analog instruments. And I LOVE having BOTH.
      I am a “this AND that”-type of person, NOT a “this OR that” person.
      If St. Peters can have only one organ, or it must be made mostly in one fashion or the other,
      There are places for REAL instruments and there are places for DIGITAL instruments.
      **THIS** is not one of them!

      Get your CLASS, sense of TASTE and DECORUM back among yourselves!

  4. I quit reading at:

    “The presence of the electronic instrument in the Papal Basilica appears to us as a sign of the cultural decadence of our time, since it represents fiction rather than truth.”

    I am well aware that many in the “reform of the reform” have long had a deeply fined tuned penchant for the self -righteous, but please. It’s an organ.

    1. I think the point being that digital organ is an imitation of the pipe organ hence the ‘fiction rather than truth’. It ought to be self evident that which is genuinely original and authentic is always and everywhere preferable than imitated products. And no they are not self righteous, only that they point out what is obvious.

      1. I prefer pipe organs and advocate for them because they sound better. But I don’t find the authentic/imitation argument philosophically convincing. Both pipe and digital are products of human technology. You could argue that the pipe organ in part is an imitation of the human voice, and of the orchestra (especially in 19th century Romantic instruments). I think both pipe and digital are “authentic” in a sense – but that doesn’t make them equally good.

      2. And so we come to whether oil-filled candles are the same or less good than wax candles, polyester vestments the same or less good than natural textiles, why not replace the homily with a videotaped one on a big screen?, aged popes who process in wheelchairs…. It’s a very dangerous blanket argument to say that all products of human technology and genius are thereby authentic expressions of who we are. In other words, it’s not about fiction v. truth so much as the values and motivations that underlie what we do.

      3. Perhaps a further dive to the point I made. I think the value proposition of technology is that, among other things, it enhances what humans can do. They amplify the good quality of what they are imitating. While it might be that pipe organ tries to imitate sounds, human or otherwise, (and impressively done so), it is unique as an instrument in itself in that it produces a sound that is distinct and original from any known musical instrument. It is therefore in the genre of musical instruments, one of a kind. Relative to pipe organ, the digital organ is an imitation. A product of human technology? No doubt. But the awful thing is, it did not amplify the good quality of what it is imitating. On the contrary, it is a degradation of the original instrument it is trying to imitate. They say there is good technology and bad technology. The digital organ tragically so, falls on the latter. It is a poor imitation of what is authentic and no matter how sophisticated the employed digital technology is, it is not as good as the original. I think from this perspective, one can understand the ‘fiction over truth’ comment. I’m not sure that they are trying to be philisophical when they used that phrase. I think it is more like ‘why settle for a poor and cheap imitation when you can have the authentic and original’?

  5. Is a pipe organ that has digital components, which many of the new ones do, midi etc, count as not “real organs” according to the signers of this petition? There is a pipe organ in St.Peters Basilica,it is in serious disrepair.

  6. On a more humorous note, on 5 December 1938, the President-Director General of Orme Limited wrote to the Sacred Congregation of Rites asking if it would give its approval to the instrument known as a Hammond Organ. The Congregation’s preliminary reply was negative, and would be definitively confirmed on 4 September 1939. (The beginning of World War II effectively scuppered that!…..)

    As far as anyone knows, neither the Congregation nor the Second Vatican Council ever formally revoked this decision, even though our practice would make us think otherwise. The only document, mentioned in the other thread on this topic, that can be adduced in any kind of support for a digital organ is De musica sacra et sacra liturgia (1958), where para 64 says:

    As a substitute, the electronic organ 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.

    The language speaks for itself: “tolerated”, “temporarily”, “rendering such an instrument more suitable for sacred use”. It seems clear that the only universal church document mentioning electronic organs did so with considerable reluctance and as a short-term stopgap.

  7. Isn’t this the same church “authority” that once decreed that women may not be choir members and were required to keep their heads covered. I am literally scandalized that individuals I have great admired actually contend that instruments that reproduce orchestral voices with air and elaborate mechanical technologies are superior to instruments that reproduce those sounds by digital technologies. Pipe organs obtained their pride of place in the church when they were the only technology available.

  8. I have no interest in arguing that digital organs are evil or inherently unsuitable for liturgy (I think one would have a very difficult time making that negative case convincing). In some rare cases, they are actually a better solution than a physical pipe organ – e.g. large outdoor masses. However, the positive argument that a physical pipe organ is better than a digital one is much more interesting. There are real differences in sound quality, in the way the moving air interacts with the space and congregation, and the “breath” of the organ interacts with the music, in the finesse of control a player has over the sound, and so forth. The organ is unique in my experience, in that digital samplings reproduced through speakers are often held to be “just as good” or even “identical” to a physical instrument. I have honestly never heard this argument used with other instruments – I’ve never heard someone argue that a digital sampling of a violin or piano, manipulated by a player, is just as good as a real violin or piano, where musician and listener are concerned. I think there is a worthwhile discussion to be had on these points, which should not be knee-jerk dismissed via the generic comeback that “the Church has always used technology!” (As if that is any kind of real or worthwhile answer to the question at hand).

    All of that technical discussion aside, there is real ground for concern when the grand “home church” of Catholicism puts in a digital organ. Many, many parishes I’ve seen put in a digital organ simply because they lack the vision or understanding to even care about discussing what is best. In other words, the digital organ serves as a stopgap, “gets the job done”, and absolves the current pastor from having to spend time thinking about other options or (worst of all) raising significant money for an instrument. Even more than the musical qualities of a digital organ, it is the lack of thought, care, vision, and investment when it comes to sacred music, that is worrisome to me.

    1. Yes, Jared. The fact is that a handful of speaker cones are incapable of moving the much greater volumes of air contained within possibly dozens of wooden or metal pipes. However good the digital reproduction of the actual sound waves, the sound will always have a different, less immediate, character because of that. Like listening to a good pipe organ on a high-quality CD player.

  9. The science and art of digital organ building have made tremendous progress within the last several years. A first-rate system in the hands of a master voicer (typically one who has both pipe and digital voicing experience) can produce instruments that equal a fine pipe organ in quality and character of sound. Stories abound of grand-high expert organists who cannot differentiate between pipe and digital stops on certain hybrid organs. My own parish organ was enlarged with a Walker Digital system, and Bob Walker himself spent countless hours voicing each individual note for our acoustic. The result is a seamless integration of pipe and digital voices. Philosophers can debate the authenticity of digital vs. pipe instruments, but I consider the musical debate settled for high-end installations.

    Unfortunately, the Allen organ in St. Peter’s does not seem to be the highest quality hardware that would allow meticulous voicing. From the pictures, it looks like a small mid-quality model that could be ordered out of a catalog. I’ve seen many such installations where they roll in the console, throw a few speakers up in the rafters, string it together, plug it in, and toss you the keys. These on-the-cheap installations do not represent the best of what digital instruments can offer. I would hope that St. Peter’s would permit only the highest form of all arts, including pipe and/or digital organs.

    1. The challenge, Scott, is that in contradiction of your opinion that the musical debate is settled, I have my opinion that the opposite is true. My opinion has been formed by many years of study with excellent teachers and a wide experience playing organs of all sizes and shapes, around the country and abroad, for both concerts and liturgies. I’ve even played the dedication recital for a digital/pipe hybrid organ! None of that means I am automatically right in my opinion. It does mean I am well-formed and qualified to make a judgment in this matter. And the fact that I am contradicting you means that the debate is not “settled.” We are having it right now! I will also say, that my opinion contradicting yours is shared by countless teachers, colleagues, and organ builders at home and abroad. Those sharing your opinion that the musical result of high-end digital is indistinguishable from that of a good physical instrument are a tiny tiny minority in the field (I actually can’t think of any colleagues that say that – but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt). None of which means that you are wrong – I am just outlining the reality here.

      I don’t hope to change your opinion through internet comments. I will say, though, that since the debate is not in fact settled, pastors and musicians owe it to those they serve to truly grapple with the issue rather than settling for the cheapest and easiest digital solution. Form a committee, solicit qualified input from musicians and builders, take trips to visit other parishes with different types of organs, experience liturgy at those places, etc. The debate is certainly not settled, and those in leadership positions have a responsibility to do their homework and use their intellect.

  10. I understand the author’s arguments but I think readers need to look at this from a practical standpoint, rather than through a Liturgical or Theological lens. No one comments on the needs of the choir and assumptions are made without hearing this specific organ in the space or hearing a new digital installation. Such questions arise as: How would a pipe organ be installed without tampering or destroying important architecture or art? If a new gigantic (needed to fit the needs of the Basilica) pipe organ was installed, would there be a similar thread on a sacred architectural blog? Where would cases be installed that would not hinder the audible experience of the congregation, Celebrant, and choir? Is a multi-million dollar instrument the best use of the Church’s stewardship with so many other pressing issues in today’s society? I’m sure the leadership at the Basilica was faced with these dilemmas and needed to find the optimal solution to fill needs for the choir and the Church’s call for active participation throughout the Liturgy. The current pipe organ does not support congregational singing and has limitations musically thus not fulfilling the needs of the church. Further, those involved in organ committees are not “lazy” for selecting a digital instrument; they are merely selecting the best solution for the ever-changing church and the Church’s needs. Whether a digital or pipe organ brings people into the Basilica, what is more important is that we are bringing people into the Church and bringing them into active participation with the Church.

  11. “The presence of the electronic instrument in the Papal Basilica appears to us as a sign of the cultural decadence of our time, since it represents fiction rather than truth.”

    Hmmm . . . I never realized how subversive a digital organ an be. I mean will they corrupt our youth? Perhaps those churches having digital organs should post a warning: “Digital Organ played in this Church. Ages 18+ only admitted. Caution may be injurious to your eternal soul”

    Oh for goodness sakes, stuff like this makes me cranky!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *