By Christina Galeone
The composer Johann Sebastian Bach once said, “Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.” On Sept. 27, during Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia, the papal hymn “Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom” reflected Bach’s words and more. Brought to life by the Papal Choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the beautiful hymn honored God, delighted souls worldwide and created a legacy for its composer, Normand Gouin, the director of liturgy and music at the College of the Holy Cross.
Growing up in Maine, Mr. Gouin – who is also an assistant chaplain at Holy Cross – said the Catholic church he attended was an integral part of his childhood. It’s not surprising. Both his parents were consecrated religious before they were called (before meeting) to family life. Not only did they fill their home with devout faith, they also recognized their son’s musical ability and encouraged him to share his gifts with others.
He remained involved in music and ministries throughout high school, college and graduate school.
“I’ve been working in full time pastoral ministry – and music and liturgy – for over 24 years now, and writing music for the Church has continued since my time in college,” said Mr. Gouin. “I’ve just always been involved in music and worship. I’ve had the benefit of some really great mentors, who promoted my music and encouraged me.”
In July 2014, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia contacted the gifted composer, who was the music director at Old St. Joseph’s National Shrine in Philadelphia for nearly 10 years. They invited him, along with 19 other sacred music composers, to submit a hymn to be considered for the official hymn of the 2015 World Meeting of Families. After receiving biblical references and excerpts from Church documents related to the Holy Family and family life, he contacted his friend and mentor, Father Andrew Ciferni, O. Praem, a Norbertine priest and native Philadelphian, with whom he had collaborated on several other sacred music projects.
Mr. Gouin suggested composing a metered text that would make the melody “accessible and memorable.” From there, they were off and running. Mr. Gouin crafted the tune and hymn harmonization, while Father Ciferni worked on the text. Mr. Gouin said both he and the lyricist found inspiration in contemplating family life, Jesus, Mary and Joseph as role models and Pope Francis’ call “to simplicity and to be people of justice – to be disciples of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
When the Holy Cross composer was notified that the hymn had been chosen, he considered it “one of the greatest honors” of his life. He was also shocked.
“I was among a lot of other great composers that I don’t necessarily consider myself in line with. So, to have that chosen was a great honor and very humbling,” said Mr. Gouin.
The composer, who also sang with the Papal Choir for the Mass, added, “And to be there at the Mass with almost a million people singing that hymn, what greater gift could I ask for to have been chosen … to allow God to work through me as a composer … to craft this melody that would then be shared by so many people and help people, hopefully, to pray in union with our Holy Father.”
And he said his parents, who watched the Mass on television, were equally happy about their son’s achievement. “It’s like having a celebrity son all of a sudden,” joked Mr. Gouin with a laugh. But he then admitted how much this honor means to them because, he said, “so much of who I am – and my experience of family and church – stems from them. They’re my first teachers. They’re my first mentors – in terms of finding out what it means to be a part of His Church and sharing their faith with me. To see all of that come to the point where my music is actually being used to help people celebrate at such an amazing and historic event, means the world to them.”
While the hymn about bringing God’s children from all nations together to find “holy freedom” by following the virtues of the Holy Family inspires people, Mr. Gouin was inspired by Pope Francis. Besides being struck by the beauty of the Mass and overjoyed at sharing it with friends, while having the Philadelphia Orchestra perform the hymn, the composer felt challenged.
“I left Philadelphia challenged to live more simply, to work harder at living the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to do so with joy… to always attempt to find common ground, and finally to be much more attentive to the plight of the poor and how to be a good and just steward of the environment,” said Mr. Gouin.
“Reflecting on Pope Francis’ message and heeding this call to conversion I hope will not only affect my daily living but my work as an artist and composer of sacred music for the Church.”
– The hymn can be heard and the words can be read by going to the World Meeting of Families website: http://www.worldmeeting2015.org/about-the-event/hymn/
or by going directly to YouTube: https://youtu.be/4fDrVPKx800