Norbertine Father Andrew Ciferni

DE PERE, Wis. (CNS) — Norbertine Father Andrew Ciferni normally tries to avoid large crowds, but he may be willing to endure them next fall in Philadelphia when Pope Francis makes his first visit to the United States.

Father Ciferni wrote the text for “Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom,” the official hymn for the World Meeting of Families being held Sept. 22-27 in the City of Brotherly Love and featuring the papal visit. (Listen to the hymn performed for the first time Nov. 30 by the choir of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.)

“I have jokingly said that, if they promise me 15 minutes alone with the pope, I would go, but that’s not going to happen,” said Father Ciferni, director of the Center for Norbertine Studies at St. Norbert College. “The more I’m thinking about it, I would go because my own community back there in Daylesford Abbey (in Paoli, Chester County) — not just the Norbertines, but the laity — are thrilled about this. I would go for them.”

“Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom” was selected from 20 hymns submitted by invitation. Father Ciferni collaborated with composer Normand Gouin.

“I met Normand 26 years ago when I was teaching at The Catholic University of America (in Washington) and helping out with campus ministry,” explained Father Ciferni. “He was a freshman doing church music. My professional career is in liturgy. I realized the first time I worked with him that he really understood how music worked in the liturgy. I have mentored him and we have collaborated for years on church music.”

Gouin worked for several years in parishes before becoming music director at Michigan State University. Father Ciferni then hired him at Daylesford Abbey, where he served for three years. Gouin, a Maine native, was then music director at Old St. Joseph Parish in Philadelphia for five years prior to accepting the position of musician and liturgist at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“When we are working together, we spark one another’s imagination,” said Father Ciferni told The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay. “If we were working alone, we couldn’t come up with as fruitful a product.”

Father Ciferni didn’t have the music at the time he wrote the text.

“Writing a hymn is like writing a sonnet or haiku,” he explained. “There is a form, what we call the meter. (Gouin) said, ‘The meter for this is going to be 8/7, 8/7, 8/7,’ eight syllables, seven syllables. He didn’t have the melody yet, but he knew that it was going to be 8/7, 8/7. I did it in about two days and sent it to him.”

Father Ciferni, who wrote the text around Labor Day, also sent it to Mary Margaret Alvarado, a writer whose works include “Hey Folly.”

“I baptized her,” said Father Ciferni. “She is out of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop program and is a published poet. We worked on it together. We did not change any of the basic flow of the text, but just made some words better. Then we sent that text to Norm and said, ‘You have the last word.'”

Gouin named the tune “Philadelphia.”

“The easiest thing for me was the beginning, ‘Sound the bell of holy freedom,’ because of the Liberty Bell,” explained Father Ciferni. “I did not know at the time that the logo for this gathering is the Liberty Bell.”

Writing the text was even more special because Father Ciferni is a native of South Philadelphia, which he describes as “very Catholic and blue collar with row houses.” He grew up in the former St. Edmond Parish and went to the parish school.

“I had Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters for eight years and then moved on to the diocesan high school, Bishop Neumann, which was run by the Norbertines,” he explained. “At 17, right out of high school, I joined the order. My family is just ecstatic (about the hymn).”

“Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom” was first performed at the Nov. 30 Sunday evening Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. Father Ciferni heard it the following morning.

“The integration of the text and the music was just wonderful,” he said. “In a way, it didn’t surprise me because Norm and I work very well together and I love his music. It has that meditative sense which I think is quite lovely.”

Father Ciferni added that he is happy with the flow of the theology in the text. The first verse is an invitation to prayer. The second is about the family history of Jesus from David. The third is about St. Joseph and Mary. The fourth verse is about Jesus’ youth in Nazareth and the wedding at Cana. The fifth verse is about Mary at the cross and the connection with grieving mothers throughout the world.

“The sixth is like a movement to the Eucharist,” explained Father Ciferni. “So we go from word to table. I think that just comes naturally to me as a liturgist.”


Kurowski is the assistant editor of The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.