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Vatican's organist calls Omaha home

Raised in Omaha, James Goettsche has taken his love for the organ all the way to Rome where he is the organist at St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican. Photo by Lisa Schulte

By Lisa Schulte
The Catholic Voice

For years, James Goettsche's name was plastered on billboards in Rome as one of the best organists in Italy.

His famous concerts drew large crowds and his face was seen all over European television.

Today, he remains one of Italy's most well-known musicians, serving as the organist at St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican since 1989.

Despite his fame, Goettsche still holds the Archdiocese of Omaha close to his heart.

A native of Los Angeles, Goettsche moved to Omaha with his parents when he was in the fourth grade. He attended Sacred Heart and St. Cecilia grade schools before studying for the priesthood at Conception Seminary in Conception, Mo., and St. John Vianney Seminary in Elkhorn.

The 62-year-old Goettsche returned to Omaha last week to perform a concert at St. Cecilia Cathedral and to visit his relatives.

"I'm having a glorious time re-experiencing the church where I grew up," he told The Catholic Voice during his visit. "I remember Omaha because I grew up here in those formative years that were most important in my life, and therefore, every time I come back to the cathedral, it is exactly like coming back to my home."

His great passion

Goettsche's love for the organ began when he was a freshman at Conception Seminary.

"When I got to Conception, I heard the organ and I just died for it," he said. "I heard it and I was just moved almost to tears at this wonderful thing."

Goettsche became so enthralled with the instrument that he spent almost all of his free time learning the keyboards. He would even sneak out of his room in the middle of the night to go to the chapel and "hide away for my heart's content on the organ," he said.

His late night practices paid off because after a year, he was transferred to St. John Vianney Seminary – now Mount Michael Benedictine Abbey – and became the seminary's organist.

Goettsche eventually left the seminary to pursue organ. He finished his senior year at Creighton Prep in Omaha before attending the University of South Dakota and San Francisco State College in California.

While in California, Goettsche was introduced to Fernando Germani, the organist at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome at the time, and the two quickly became friends. Germani was so impressed with Goettsche's talent that he invited him to come and study music in Rome.

The invitation was a dream come true, said Goettsche, who had wanted to go to Rome since he was a boy.

"I used to get books out of the Omaha Public Library for children that were about Roman history and I read them like Mickey Mouse comic books," he said.

That summer, in 1961, Goettsche moved to Rome, took classes from Germani, and eventually was accepted into St. Cecilia Conservatory.

"I had told my parents it would be three years before I would come back home, but it ended up being 30 years before I ever stepped on American soil," he said.

After graduating from the conservatory in 1968, Goettsche became the official organist at the Santa Francesca Romana in the Roman Forum. In 1989, Goettsche was elected to be the organist at St. Peter's Basilica and the organist at papal liturgies at the Vatican. Since then, he has played at almost every Christmas Eve Mass, Easter Mass, bishops' ordination, nomination of cardinals, beatification and saint canonization. In fact, he was the organist at the beatification and canonization of Padre Pio and of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.

"It's unbelievable that I am a part of history, I am a part of ongoing history, which has been going on for nearly 2,000 years," said Goettsche, who is also a professor of music at a conservatory in Rome. "I realize that I occupy what is the principal position for an organist in the Roman church. I know that many persons would love to be in such a position."

Goettsche, who speaks 10 languages, said he doesn't have any illusions about his job and repeats often the Latin phrase, "Sic transit Gloria mundi," which means, "Thus passes the glory of the world."

"I say this to myself every time I sit at the organ in front of hundreds of thousands of people in the square, 'Don't get a big head. Don't think anything big because it's all just passing.'"

Beauty of organ

The organ is the only instrument that can rival the orchestra and that's why Goettsche said he loves it.

"It is an instrument which can change like a kaleidoscope its color. It can shade itself like a painting. You can have various shadings of single colors or you can mix various colors just like the orchestra," he said. "The organ gives a person the most independence that is conceivable in every sense of color, dynamic, range and possibility of part playing. With its sound, it is one of the most soul-moving experiences."

The new organ at the Cathedral is "exceptional," he said.

"If it were based solely on organs , I might trade positions for the organ (at the Cathedral) because this organ is in total harmony with the space in which it is constructed. It has a marvelous effect in the whole church and the whole church is a resonator with the organ. It's all one. It's a wonderful experience."

Although he has lived in Rome for 34 years, Goettsche says he will never forget his Nebraska roots.

"I'm very proud and I very often tell people that I am glad to represent them, my folk, in the Vatican and in the position in which I'm in."

The Catholic Voice

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