Our community at Our Lady of Peace had the grace of receiving Father Robert Skeris, who came across the country to visit our music program at St. Joseph Academy this spring.
Ordained in 1961, Father Skeris is the Director of the Center for Ward Method Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and was the Prefect of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome during the pontificate of Bl. Pope John Paul II.
Father Skeris promotes a program founded by Justine Ward (1879-1975) following the 1903 Motu Propio of Pope St. Pius X, Tra Le Sollicitudini (link to the text in Spanish; the Vatican website only offers this text in Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish). This historic instruction on Sacred Music, given on the feast of St. Cecilia, instructed the faithful that since the aim of sacred music is to help the faithful to be more easily moved to devotion and to be better disposed for the reception of grace, there are specific guidelines that must be followed. Among these guidelines one of the most prominent was the necessity for Gregorian Chant.
Justine Ward was in the process of converting to the Catholic Faith when she read this Motu Propio of the pope and felt personally touched by it. With the help of God’s grace and through assistance of other wise and holy instructors, Ward developed a pedagogy for teaching music to children that would prepare them to develop numerous musical abilities such as ear training, sight singing, composition, transcription, intonation, rhythm, conducting and more, all for the purpose of adequately and beautifully singing sacred music. The title of her text is “That All May Sing”.
Not only did Ward construct this great pedagogy, but she also set up a foundation that would continue this important project after she was gone. Years later, Ward’s pedagogy is still being promoted and hopefully is beginning to pick up speed across the country under the direction of Fr. Skeris.
Two of our sisters from Our Lady of Peace received instruction under the Ward Method last summer and implemented the method this school year at St. Joseph Academy. We have already seen the positive influence it has had on our children: their attentiveness and satisfaction at singing on pitch, being able to sight read different combinations of tones, rhythms and entire songs to name a few.
In this class, the children seek to produce something beautiful, and they even conduct the songs as they sing them! They are able to figure out how to sing a song on their own without having to hear it first. The children gradually and incrementally learn nine different techniques that build upon one another each day during a 20 minute class period. To follow up on the initial instruction we received over the summer and in order to see if we were ready to move forward in our Ward training, Father Skeris came to observe our progress, to make sure that we were properly delivering the pedagogy as it was intended. He observed our classes and gave us helpful insights to improve our program.
While he was at the school, he interacted with the children with great joy and kindness. The children in turn, were eager to share with him what they have been learning in school and to play “chopsticks” for him on the piano! They taught him the words they knew in Latin and asked him if he liked to play in the snow. This good octogenarian priest listened to everything the children had to say and answered every question with every bit of graciousness.
This visit of Fr. Skeris, has given us great joy and hope that a greater honor and reverence for the Sacred Liturgy is being promoted throughout the country and throughout the world through this method. To learn more about the contemporary reception and application of Tra Le Sollicitudini, we invite you to read Pope John Paul II’s 2003 Chirograph on the Occasion of the Centenary of Tra Le Sollicitudini.
We give thanks to God for this great grace and we pray that the children who receive this instruction will grow up to fill the churches with beautiful melodies of worship to God who is worthy of all praise.
Sr. Maria Virgo Offerens Rebeck, SSVM
Saint Joseph Academy
Santa Clara, California