[Although not as commonly used in modern churches, bells have a long history. They would have been very important when clocks were unavailable. Their call to prayer and worship would also help to mark out the time of day for townspeople.]
In many European churches and in some of our own, beautiful chimes of bells have been installed, varying in number. In the old parish churches of India 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 title "Ave Maria," and are used especially for the Angelus; others have an invocation to St. Gabriel, the archangel of the Annunciation. On many of the bells in the old churches in Europe quaint verses were used, such as:
Men's 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 -- one long stroke and two short strokes...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.")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 St. Bernard. 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 [the liturgy of the hours,]; 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 hack 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 St. Luke, from which two of the versicles and responses are taken, the third being from the Gospel of St. 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 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. [Now the ringing of small sanctuary bells at the elevation of the consecrated host and cup announce the presence of Christ.]
Such, then, is the history of bells and... 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 lifelong 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 Savior, thereby enlivens our faith, strengthens our hope, and increases our love of God