Externals of the Catholic Church – Church Bells

The sweet music of bells has given occasion to two of the most melodious poems in our English language – the weird and beautiful “Bells” of Edgar Allan Poe, and the somewhat less inspired but very musical “Bells of Shandon,” in which the Rev. Francis Mahoney, who wrote under the name of “Father Prout,” immortalized the sweet chimes

That sound so grand on
The pleasant waters of the River Lee.

Bells in Ancient Times

The use of bells for general and even for religious purposes is of very ancient origin, although it is likely that in early ages they were of very rude form and imperfect sound, and that they were gradually developed into their present perfection.

They are said to have been used by the ancient Egyptians in the worship of their god Osiris; but these bells were small, and rather in the form of a flat gong. Moses, who had been educated in the priestly class of Egypt, introduced them into the ceremonial of the Jewish religion.

Among the Romans there is no trace of their employment for religious purposes, apart from the processions of rejoicing after victories. In these triumphal events, which were partly of a religious character, expressing gratitude to the gods for success in battle, bells were sometimes mounted in chariots and joyfully rung during the progress of the procession.

In Christian Churches

Bells came into use in our churches as early as the year 400, and their introduction is ascribed to Paulinus, bishop of Nola, a town of Campania, in Italy. Their use spread rapidly, as in those unsettled times the church-bell was useful not only for summoning the faithful to religious services, but also for giving an alarm when danger threatened. Their use was sanctioned in 604 by Pope Sabinian, and a ceremony for blessing them was established a little later. Very large bells, for church towers, were probably not in common use until the eleventh century.

In various museums of Europe many curious old bells are preserved, and particularly in Scotland and Ireland fine specimens may be seen of the ancient monastic bells of the Celtic abbeys. These are sometimes square in shape, and are made of bronze or iron sheets riveted together. Their sound, consequently, must have been discordant and far less powerful than that of our modern bells.

Bells were introduced into the Eastern churches about the ninth century and some of the largest in the world are to be found in the great cathedrals of Russia. The most enormous of these is the famous “Bell of Moscow,” which, however, is not in condition to be rung, as a large piece is broken out of its side. It is about nineteen feet in height, and of nearly the same diameter. Moscow also boasts another gigantic bell, which weighs eighty tons and is nearly fourteen feet in diameter.

The largest bell on this side of the Atlantic is said to be that in the tower of the Church of Notre Dame in Montreal. It weighs nearly fifteen tons.

Chimes and Peals

In many European churches and in some of our own, beautiful chimes of bells have been installed, varying in number from eight to twelve or fourteen, and so arranged that the notes of the musical scale may be sounded upon them. In the old parish churches of England it is customary to ring the bells in a harmonious peal, in which all are rung at the same time, the volume of sound thus produced being enormous and the effect very beautiful, particularly at a distance.

Many of the bells used in churches are engraved with appropriate inscriptions, telling the various uses to which they are put. Some bear the tide “Ave Maria,” and are used especially for the Angelus; others have an invocation to Saint Gabriel, the archangel of the Annunciation. On many of the bells in the old churches in England quaint verses were used, such as:

Mens death I tell by doleful knell;
Lightning and thunder I break asunder;
On Sabbath all to church I call;
The sleepy head I rouse from bed;
The tempest’s rage I do assuage;
When cometh harm, I sound alarm.

An idea which was common some centuries ago was that the sound of church bells was a sure safeguard against lightning and violent tempests; and therefore the bells were rung vigorously during storms.

The “Passing Bell”

A beautiful and pious custom which prevailed in many Catholic countries was the “passing bell,” which was rung slowly when a death was imminent in the parish. When the sick person was near his end the solemn tones of the bell reminded the faithful of their Christian duty of praying for his happy death and for his eternal repose; and after his spirit had departed, the bell tolled out his age – one short stroke for each year.

In rural England this custom of Catholic days has been kept up, although those who ring the bells and those who hear them have no faith in the efficacy of prayers for a departed soul.

The Angelus

One of the most important uses to which church bells are devoted is the ringing of the Angelus. This practice is distinctively Catholic. There was nothing resembling it in Jewish and pagan rites. All religions, it is true, have had certain times for prayer; but they have had nothing at all like our Angelus, which consists essentially in the reciting of certain prayers at the sound of a bell at fixed hours.

The Angelus is a short practice of devotion in honor of the Incarnation of our Blessed Lord, and it is recited three times a day – at morning, noon and evening – at the sound of a bell. It consists in the triple repetition of the Hail Mary with certain versicles, responses and a prayer. It takes its name from the opening words of the Latin form, “Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae” (“the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.”)

The history of this beautiful devotion is extremely vague. The Angelus possibly owed its origin to a practice which was not at all religious – namely, the Curfew, or sounding of an evening bell as a signal that all must extinguish fires and lights and retire to rest. This was done principally as a precaution against conspiracy, especially in conquered countries. For example, when the Normans had invaded England and had overthrown the Saxon power, they imposed many strict and cruel regulations upon the people, among which was the curfew law, prescribing that all must be in their homes and with lights extinguished when the sound of the warning bell was heard; for thus did the dominant race prevent the unlawful assembling of the discontented serfs whom it desired to keep in bondage.

Morning, Noon and Night

Now, among a people who were Christian, it was natural that this bell should become a signal for nightly prayers. But the question may be asked, how did the custom arise of reciting prayers in the morning and at noon at the sound of a bell, and why were these prayers in honor of the Blessed Virgin? A rather vague tradition assigns these practices to Saint Bernard, but there is no certainty regarding them. The prayers to Mary probably came into use gradually, and in this manner: In the monasteries it was customary on certain days to recite the Office of the Blessed Virgin in addition to the regular Office of the day; and this included the repetition of the salutation of the Archangel to Mary, with the other versicles, much as we have them now. The people began to use these as ejaculatory prayers, and recited them as a part of their evening devotions at the sound of the bell.

The earliest custom resembling our morning Angelus is traced back to Parma, in Italy, in the year 1318, when three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys were ordered to be recited, to obtain the blessing of peace; and the bell which gave the signal for these prayers was known as the “Peace Bell.” A similar practice was prescribed in England by Archbishop Arundel in 1399.

The bell at noon was originally intended to summon the faithful to meditate on the Passion of Christ, and was rung only on Fridays; but after a time it was sounded also on other days, and the same prayers were recited as at morning and evening. This was ordered in the year 1456, by Pope Calixtus III.

The Prayers of the Angelus

At first the Angelus consisted only of the first part of the Hail Mary, repeated three times. This was prescribed for the success of the Crusades and the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Gospel narrative which is summarized so beautifully in this devotion is found in the first chapter of Saint Luke, from which two of the versicles and responses are taken, the third being from the Gospel of Saint John. Thus, by reciting it, we are reminded at morning, noon and night of Him Whose Name is “the only one under heaven given to men whereby they may be saved,” and of her who is well entitled “our life, our sweetness and our hope.”

The Legend of the Regina Coeli

During the season after Easter the Church substitutes the “Regina Coeli” for the usual prayers of the Angelus. The following legend, beautiful indeed but somewhat fanciful, is handed down concerning its origin:

“During the reign of Saint Gregory, about the year 596, a severe pestilence raged in Rome. At the Paschal season the Pontiff was taking part in a great religious procession, to implore God’s mercy on the stricken city. He was carrying in his hands a picture of our Blessed Lady, which was said to have been painted by Saint Luke, and was reputed to be miraculous. Suddenly the sound of angels’ voices was heard in the air, chanting the Regina Coeli. The Pope and people listened, amazed and filled with awe, until they had learned the words. The plague ceased from that moment.”

Of course, there is no obligation to believe that such an occurrence ever happened. The legend is probably only the product of the fertile imagination of some medieval story-teller. It is far more likely that the beautiful words of this anthem owe their origin to the genius and piety of some devout religious of the early Middle Ages. We know that it is at least of very ancient date.

The Indulgences of the Angelus

Nearly two hundred years ago, in 1724, Pope Benedict XIII granted an indulgence of one hundred days for each recitation, with a plenary indulgence once a month for those who recite it habitually. Leo XIII, in 1884, modified the requirements for gaining these indulgences. It is no longer strictly necessary that the Angelus shall be said kneeling, although that posture is the proper one on every day except Sunday and Saturday evening, when the rubrics prescribe that it be said standing. Owing to this change, the Angelus may be said easily in a public place, where kneeling would attract undue attention. Nor is it necessary now that it be recited at the sound of the bell, provided that it is said approximately at the proper hours – in the early morning, about the hour of noon, and toward evening. This enables one who is not within sound of an Angelus-bell to gain the partial indulgence daily and the plenary indulgence monthly, simply by reciting the required prayers at nearly the proper time, and performing the other things requisite for obtaining the plenary indulgence.

But what is to be done by one who does not know the prayers of the Angelus? How can he gain the indulgences? He must recite five Hail Marys in place of the three which, with the versicles and prayer, form the regular Angelus devotion. The same is to be said concerning the Regina Coeli, which is substituted for the Angelus during the Paschal time.

The manner of ringing the Angelus seems to have varied very little since the beginning of the devotion. Old monastic records, going bad: to the fifteenth century, show that the bell-ringer was directed “to toll the Ave-bell nine strokes at three times, keeping the space of one Pater and Ave between each of the three tollings.” In those days the concluding prayer was not in use; but when it began to be recited, the further ringing of the bell came into vogue, as we have it at the present day.

The Tower-Bell at the Elevation

The practice of elevating the Sacred Host and the Chalice at Mass, immediately after the consecration of each, was introduced in the Latin churches about the beginning of the thirteenth century. It was then deemed fitting that those who were not present at Mass should also be invited to adore their Eucharistic Lord. And so the practice was begun of ringing one of the great bells of the church, to give notice to all the people, that they might kneel for a moment and make an act of adoration.

No bells, large or small, are rung between the end of the Gloria of the Mass on Holy Thursday and the beginning of the Gloria on Holy Saturday, when the Church begins to anticipate joyfully the Resurrection of our Lord. Then both the sanctuary-gongs and the tower-bells peal forth triumphantly, to announce that Christ has risen from the dead, to die no more.

The Blessing of Bells

The ceremony of the blessing of a church bell is one of the most elaborate and impressive in the whole liturgy of our Church; and this is not surprising when we consider the many and how important uses to which bells are devoted in Catholic worship.

This blessing is given only by a bishop or by a priest who has special faculties from the bishop, empowering him to administer it. The bell is placed at the head of the main aisle of the church or in some other prominent place, and is so situated that the clergy may pass around it conveniently and that the interior may be reached without difficulty.

The bishop and clergy go to the bell in solemn procession, and recite aloud seven psalms, invoking the mercy of God on the Church and its members. Then the water which is to be used in the ceremony is blessed by the bishop in the same manner as ordinary holy water, except that an additional prayer is recited, asking that God’s benediction be given to it, so that the bell which is to be blessed with it may have the power of overcoming the deceits of the wicked, and of preventing lightning, whirlwind and tempest; that when the faithful shall hear the bell, their devotion may increase and the services of the Church be rightly performed by them.

The bishop then begins to wash the bell with this water, and his attendants continue the washing over all the surface of the bell, inside and outside. In the meantime, six other lengthy psalms are recited by the bishop and clergy. Then a quaint and beautiful prayer is intoned by the bishop, asking God to give His grace to His people, that at the sound of this bell their faith and devotion may be increased, that the snares of the Evil One may be ineffectual, that the elements may be calmed, that the air may be healthful, that the demons may flee when they hear the sweet tones of the bell.

After the recitation of another prayer the bell is anointed with the Oil of the Sick in seven places on the outside, with the words: “May this bell, O Lord, be sanctified and consecrated, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen.”

Another prayer is chanted, and four crosses are made on the inner surface of the bell with the Holy Chrism. After still other prayers and a psalm, a Gospel is sung by a deacon just as at a solemn Mass. The’ Gospel selected is from Saint Luke, describing the visit of our Blessed Lord to Martha and Mary. “Mary hath chosen the better part, which shall not be taken from her.”

Such, then, is the history of bells and the liturgy of their blessing. They are assuredly a great help to us in the worship of God. They summon us to the services of the Church. They peal forth joyfully on the wedding day, as if to prophesy happiness and prosperity to the young couple who are beginning their life-long union. They toll mournfully as the corpse is borne to receive the Church’s last blessing, to remind us of the duty of praying for the departed soul. And as our holy Church knows the value of frequent prayer, she has given us the Angelus, which raises our hearts to God three times a day – and, by reminding us of the Incarnation of our Blessed Saviour, thereby enlivens our faith, strengthens our hope, and increases our love of God.