Norbertine priest writes text of World Meeting of Families official hymn

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | December 10, 2014

‘Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom’ selected from 20 hymns submitted

DE PERE — Norbertine Fr. 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. Fr. Ciferni wrote the text for “Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom,” the official hymn for the World Meeting of Families, featuring the pope, Sept. 22-27 in the City of Brotherly Love.

Norbertine Fr. Andrew Ciferni has collaborated with composer Normand Gouin in creating the hymn, “Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom.” It was chosen as the official hymn for the World Meeting of Families next September. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)
Norbertine Fr. Andrew Ciferni has collaborated with composer Normand Gouin in creating the hymn, “Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom.” It was chosen as the official hymn for the World Meeting of Families next September. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)

“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 Fr. 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 (Paoli, Penn.) — 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. Fr. Ciferni collaborated with composer Normand Gouin.

“I met Normand 26 years ago when I was teaching at The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.) and helping out with campus ministry,” explained Fr. 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. Fr. 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, Mass.

“When we are working together, we spark one another’s imagination,” said Fr. Ciferni. “If we were working alone, we couldn’t come up with as fruitful a product.”

Fr. 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.”

Fr. Ciferni, who wrote the text around Labor Day, also sent it to Mary Margaret Alvarado, a writer whose works include “Hey Folly.”1437cns-philly_logo.jpgweb2

“I baptized her,” said Fr. 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 Fr. 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 Fr. Ciferni is a native of South Philadelphia, which he describes as “very Catholic and blue collar with row houses.” He grew up as a member of St. Edmond Parish and 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. Fr. 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.”

Fr 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 Fr. Ciferni. “So we go from word to table. I think that just comes naturally to me as a liturgist.”

Now that “Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom” has premiered, it is available for use. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap, said that the hymn will serve as part of the spiritual preparation for the event. Beyond the World Meeting of Families, Fr. Ciferni believes it will work well for the feast of the Holy Family. He is collaborating with Gouin on another work.

“Norm is now working on a piece for (the Norbertines),” said Fr. Ciferni. “Next year is the 900th anniversary of the conversion of St. Norbert. I have given him Latin text to set to music like Taizé.”

Fr. Ciferni will likely see Gouin in Philadelphia, but he also wants to introduce him to De Pere.

“I’m going to get him here,” he said. “I’m thinking about doing an all-day workshop at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality.”

For more information about the World Meeting of Families, visit

Related Posts

Scroll to Top