Catholic CornucopiadCheney

XXVI. Church Bells

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

The history of bells is full of romantic interest. In civilized times they have been intimately associated, not only with all kinds of religious and social rites, but with almost every important historical event. Their influence upon architecture is not less remarkable, for to them indirectly we probably owe all the most famous towers in the world. Gross, in his “Antiquities,” observes: “Towers at first scarcely rose above the roof, being as lanterns for the admission of light, an addition to the height was in all likelihood suggested on the more common use of bells.”1

It does not enter into the purpose of this essay to discuss the question of bells in general further than is necessary for an understanding of them in their connection with the services of religion, much less to speak of their form, the material of which they are made, or the manufacture of them.

The word bell is of Anglo-Saxon origin, being derived from bellan, which means to make a hollow sound; from which also we have the words bellow, bawl, and peal. Bells are very ancient, but the date of their coming into use cannot be determined. They are said to have been used in the worship of Osiris in Egypt at a very early day; and it may be due to this fact that Moses, who was learned in all the sciences of the Egyptians, introduced them into the Jewish liturgy, as we read in Exodus (xxviii. 32-35). But there was, doubtless, a development in Delis, as mere is in almost everything else, from a ruder to a more perfect form and tone; and it is, besides, difficult to determine whether the words translated bell from the ancient languages, whether Egyptian, Hebrew, Chaldean, Greek, or Latin, meant an instrument such as the bells of our day or not. Mr. Layard, a distinguished Orientalist, believes that he has found some small bells among the ruins of Nimroud. If this be true, it would tend to throw light on the subject.

“The Romans used bells for various purposes. Lucian, A.D. 180, mentions an instrument—clepsydra—mechanically constructed with water, which rang a bell as the water flowed to measure time. Bells summoned the Romans to the public baths; they were also used in processions, and so passed naturally into the service of the Western Church. The first recorded application of them to churches is ascribed by Polydore Vergil to Paulinus (about 400 A.D.). He was Bishop of Nola, a city of Campania (hence nola and campana, the names of certain bells). It has been maintained that Pope Sabinianus, 604, first used church bells; but it seems clear that they were introduced into France as early as 550. In 680 Benedict, abbot of Wearmouth, imported them from Italy; and in the seventh century Bede mentions them in England. . . . In the eleventh century they were not uncommon in Switzerland and Germany. It is incredible that the Greek Christians, as has been asserted, were unacquainted with bells till the ninth century; but it is certain that, for political reasons, after the taking of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, their use was forbidden, lest they should provide a popular signal for revolt. Several old bells are extant in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales; the oldest are often quadrangular, made of thin iron plates hammered and riveted to gether.”2

Small bells were in use long before large ones; and it was customary in very ancient times, as it is at present, to hang them around the necks of animals, the easier to find them if they went astray. It is not the intention to speak of the enormous bells of Russia and China; but it may be remarked that as late as the eleventh century a bell was presented to the church at Orleans, France, which weighed only 2600 pounds, but which was thought very large.

Bells received different names according to the uses to which they were devoted. This was especially true of those used in monasteries; but this is a matter of local, or at least of only minor, importance. Nor is it necessary to refer to the little bells used at Mass and certain other religious functions, as they are not blessed. Names were given to bells as early at least as the time of Pope John XIII., who, on blessing the great bell of the Lateran basilica, named it after his patron saint, John.

The custom of blessing bells was introduced early, and one of the capitularies of Charlemagne, of 787, speaks of it. Later a form of blessing for the metal of which a bell is to be cast was also found in the ritual, but it is seldom used, and will be passed over.

There are two forms of blessing bells given in the ritual; the one for a church bell, the other for a bell not intended to be used for the church, but for some other purpose, as for a school or monastery. This latter blessing will be passed over. The bell that is to be blessed, or christened, as the people sometimes say, should be brought into the church and placed at the head of the middle aisle, or at some other convenient place, in such a manner that the officiating ministers may easily pass around it in the performance of the various ceremonies. The blessing must be performed by the bishop, or by a priest having the necessary faculties from him. The bishop, seated near the bell, begins by reciting, alternately with the clergy present, the 50th, 53d, 56th, 66th, 69th, 85th, and 129th psalms. He then rises and blesses the water to be used in the ceremony with the ordinary blessing for holy water, except that an additional prayer is recited calling down the benediction of Heaven on the water, to fit it for the particular use for which it is intended. The bishop then begins to wash the bell with this water, and the assisting ministers continue it till the bell is washed inside and out, the bishop in the meantime reciting with the clergy the psalms from the 145th to the 150th, inclusive, sitting the while. He next rises and recites a prayer, in which reference is made to the command of God to Moses to make trumpets for calling the people together for the sacrifices, and begging that at the sound of this bell the devotion of the people may be enkindled; that all the wiles of the spirit of evil may be frustrated; that all disturbances of the elements may be calmed; that the air may be healthful; and that at the sound of this bell the spirits of evil may depart at the sign of the cross marked upon it. He now intones the 28th psalm, with an antiphon before and after it.

The bishop then takes the oil of the sick, and with it makes seven signs of the cross on the exterior of the bell at different places, reciting at each the words: “May this signal, O Lord, be sanc✠tified and conse✠crated. In the name of the Fa✠ther, and of the Son✠, and of the Holy ✠ Ghost. Amen.” He next recites a prayer similar in its petitions to the first one.

Then with the same formula he signs the interior of the bell with four crosses, equidistant from each other, with the holy chrism. He now recites another prayer similar to the first in its petitions. The 76th psalm with an antiphon is then recited, which is followed by a prayer addressed to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, calling, as the others did, for spiritual and temporal blessings, and protection. Particular stress is laid in all these prayers on the power of the sound of the bell to expel evil spirits and calm disturbances of the elements.

The deacon then reads or chants a gospel taken from St. Luke (x. 38-42), which narrates the entering of Our Saviour into the house of Martha and Mary, where Martha remonstrated because her sister did not help her in preparing the meal; but Our Lord declared that Mary had chosen the better part. The bishop then makes the sign of the cross over the bell in silence, and the ceremony is concluded.

It is needless to speak of the various uses of the church bell. One of the most important has been referred to in the essay on the Angelus; the others are well known to all Christians.

Many beautiful inscriptions, expressive of the piety and generosity of the faithful or the donors, are to be found on church bells, and some expressive of their vanity, or of the quaint groove in which their minds chanced at the time to run.

It is not a matter of surprise that church bells should be consecrated with so solemn a ceremony, considering the important uses to which they are devoted. They are, we may say, the voice of God calling His children to the foot of His altar to receive His blessing; to rejoice with the joyful, to mourn with the sorrowful, to illustrate by their union the oneness of the Church herself here, and the assembly of the blest before the throne in heaven. Or, again, it is the same consecrated voice reminding us thrice in the day of the great mystery of the Incarnation; the humiliation of the Son of God; the dignity of the Mother of God. The experience of the devout child of God bears witness to the efficacy of the blessing pronounced on the church bell at the time of its consecration; for it speaks to him whether from far or near a language that only faith can understand.

1 “Encyclopædia Britainnica,” vol. iii. p. 538.
2 “Encyclopædia Britainnica,” vol. iii. p. 536.