Catholic priests kick off first international organ festival at Rome’s Pantheon

Jean Christophe Geiser performs Courtney Mares Jean-Christophe Geiser performs at the International Organ Festival in the Pantheon Sept. 5, 2020. | Courtney Mares/CNA.

Under the nearly 2,000-year-old dome of Rome's Pantheon and above the relics of early Christian martyrs, the melodies of Johann Sebastian Bach and other composers are being played on the organ this month in an effort to use beauty to reconnect people with the mystery of God.

The Pantheon's International Organ Festival seeks to create an artistic program that is both catechetical and an entryway to the mystery of Christ, according to the priests organizing the event.

"God is the perfection of beauty and every time man realizes something beautiful he participates in a certain way in the mystery of God," Msgr. Franco Sarzi Sartori said Sept. 5 at the first in a series of concerts taking place this month.

"Music elevates the soul and directs it to sublime heights. This raising of the soul towards God is even easier and more evident because looking up to the dome where the notes blend and harmonize we see the sky, the sky of Rome, witness to so much beauty."

The Pantheon itself was a pagan temple that was renowned for its architecture. It was transformed into the Basilica of Santa Maria ad Martyres by Pope Boniface IV in 609 A.D. At that time, the relics of early Christian martyrs were transferred from the Roman catacombs to the basilica.

The building -- first commissioned by Marcus Agrippa in 27 B.C. and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 126 A.D. -- has an unsupported dome larger in diameter than that of St. Peter's Basilica, with an opening in the center that is 25ft wide, revealing the sky above. At Pentecost, red rose petals are dropped from this oculus to symbolize the descent of the Holy Spirit. 

For Fr. Michele Faustino Loda, choirmaster of the basilica and the festival's organizer, the architecture of the Pantheon is the perfect complement to the organ music that will be performed.

"We are in perfect, measured, reasoned architecture. We are faced with an instrument, the organ, king of all instruments, which has its very refined engineering … to make available to the listener things that can be experienced through all the senses of the body and soul," Loda said.

The International Organ Festival offers a series of free concerts every Saturday at 5:30pm between Sept. 5 and Oct. 3, immediately following Mass in the Basilica of Santa Maria ad Martyres. 

Musicians performing in the festival this year include Jean-Christophe Geiser, organist of Lausanne Cathedral in Switzerland, Ignace Michiels of Bruges Cathedral in Belgium, and Johannes Trumpler from Dresden Cathedral in Germany, among others. 

This is the first time that the Basilica of Sancta Maria ad Martyres is organizing this organ festival, which it hopes that it will become an annual event every September. 

"Music, a universal language, has found in the Church the best spaces to express itself, both as an artistic event and as an evocation of spiritual values ​​that stand out from prayers," Sartori said. 

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