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Jennifer Graham

Save the church! (kill the organs)


In Rome this month, Pope Benedict XVI is meeting with church leaders to talk about the decline of faith and how the Catholic Church can energize the faithful and fill increasingly empty pews around the world. Of particular concern are baptized Catholics who have “drifted away,” presumably because they’re too tired or busy to bother leaving the house on a Sunday morning.

But let’s be honest: It’s not so much the ones who have drifted away that are the problem. They’ll be back eventually, when they want to be married or to baptize a child. It’s the ones who have been driven away who’re the problem, and to solve it, the first thing we must do is kill all the organs.


“Who plays the organ anymore when they’re not trying to scare someone?” asks a post on YouTube, and the answer is, frighteningly enough, practically every Catholic parish. Despite the fact that the most recognizable organ music, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, opens the film “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the pipe organ remains the central instrument, besides the human voice, of Christian worship. It endures not because anyone particularly likes organ music (there’s none on iTunes’s top singles this week, and, I’m betting, none on your iPod), but simply because it’s there. Usually ensconced in the balcony of a church, an organ is too heavy to move and too expensive to burn, so we might as well play the thing, no matter how many young people we’re scaring away.

Fifty years ago, there was hope that the organ, like the Edsel and woolly leg warmers, would eventually die of contempt. Vatican II gave birth to the “folk Mass,”a Peter, Paul, and Mary type sing-along that was earnest and soulful and completely right for the 1960s. It persisted into the ’70s, however, and there are still occasional sightings today, leading one to conclude that the Church, while accepting of evolution, refuses to entertain the concept in music.


If Darwin was right, the organ should have led to the piano, which should have led to the guitar, which should have led to a string quartet, or a harp, or even a return to solemn Gregorian chant . . . anything that doesn’t remind us of horror movies. But no.

Sitting in church with my children, who have grown up with the clarity of Bose and the ubiquity of iTunes, I cringe at the Responsorial Psalm, ancient and lovely words bleated in call-and-repeat fashion with all the auditory appeal of an electronic can opener in full swing. Later, at any poorly financed suburban parish, there’s the possibility of wincing through “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” on the organ, even though the iconic tune was written in the late ’60s for acoustic guitar.

Will my children suffer through an organ-centric Mass 20 years hence, when not compelled by parental fiat? Probably not. In an age in which we can experience the front row of a stirring live symphony while in the back seat of a 20-year-old pick-up, our tolerance for the banal, predictably, is waning.

Proponents of organs say the 2,400-year-old instrument has the best capacity to mirror and assist the human voice, and, in a time of bad acoustics, it had the lungs to make an old church throb ecstatically. There are those who long for a return to those glory days, including one Cameron Carpenter, who’s trying to be to the organ what Harry Connick Jr. was to big bands. But as young and cute as he is, I can’t sell my kids on his “Night with the Mighty Wurlitzer.”


Over at Harvard, they remain optimistic. The Harvard Organ Society offers free concerts every Thursday at lunchtime at Adolphus Busch Hall, with performers ranging from American students to European choirmasters. The coordinator tells me that attendance is solid, upwards of 40, which is decent, but unconvincing, this being Harvard and all.

“To play the organ properly, one must have a vision of eternity,” says Charles-Marie Widor, as quoted on the Harvard Organ Society’s home page. I know that eternity, yes, the sense that something unpleasant is never, ever going to end. Perhaps Harvard should pay attention to what they do at MIT. Each April, as they have for 40 years, students drop a piano from a dormitory roof. It’s time for an organ drop, too.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly
for The Globe. Her website is