Does your phone regulate your day? Do you get text messages or other reminders to keep you on time? Some of us may still use an alarm clock or even ask for a wakeup call.
However, the church was well ahead of personal planning nearly a millennium ago, when daily life began to be regulated by a church bell.
Today, we may know this bell — or its pattern of ringing — as the Angelus bell. While not as common now, there was a time when the life of nearly every town across Europe was regulated by the ringing of the Angelus bell at dawn, noon and evening: generally 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m.
The pattern of the bells would be three rings, a pause, three rings, a pause, three rings, a final pause and then nine rings in succession.
This bell ringing follows the pattern of the Angelus prayer, which consists of three Hail Marys, separated by three short verses (called versicles) that remind us of the Annunciation. By this one prayer, repeated three times each day, Christians of earlier times spent a few moments each day reflecting on the mysteries of Christ’s Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection.
The Angelus takes its name from the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary, recorded in Luke’s Gospel (1:26-38): Angelus Domini nuntiavit Maria, (“the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary”).
The Angelus developed into its distinctive triple pattern over a period of centuries, but most historical sources agree that it was patterned after the daily prayer in medieval monasteries — today known as the Liturgy of the Hours: with morning, noon and evening prayer.
The Angelus first appeared as a single evening prayer, probably back in the 14th century in Italy, though perhaps as early as the time of the first Franciscans at Assisi in the late 13th century, not long after the death of St. Francis in 1226. By 1318, and again in 1327, Pope John XXII approved the ringing of evening bells throughout Rome to signal the praying of three Hail Marys (also called “Aves”). Some traditions say that the evening bell developed first because that was the hour in which the angel appeared to Mary.
The ringing of bells and the praying of Angelus in the morning seems to have been the next to come into practice, though exactly when is not clear. It may even have developed independently of the evening bells. “The Catholic Encyclopedia notes a record of morning bells for prayer in the Italian city of Parma by 1318, where the bishop asked people to pray the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary when they heard the morning, which he called “the peace bell.”
In 1456, Pope Callistus III ordered bells to be rung at midday, along with the praying of three Hail Marys, with the intention of the success of the Crusades and to ask protection against an anticipated invasion by the Turks. There is also a tie between praying the Angelus at noon and the Passion, since this is the hour that Christ was upon the cross when the sky went dark.
Some historians link the Angelus bell with the curfew bells that were common throughout England and France. The curfew bells trace back to the 10th century, when England was attacked by Viking raiders. The curfew bell was rung later in the evening — and for longer than the Angelus bell — to signal the closing of the city gates for the night. Curfew bells were hung either in the town hall, or church bells were given double duty as curfew bells. Since church bells were thus sometimes used for two purposes, it is understandable that the Angelus and curfew bells might be confused as one and the same.
The familiar pattern of praying the Angelus three times a day was well in place by the 16th century. The ringing of this Angelus bell so regulated life that workers in the field were known to stop and kneel in the fields at the sound of the noon Angelus.
While people no longer stop at noon and pray in the fields, or even hear a church bell ring — whether for the hour or for the Angelus — we can still remember what Pope Paul VI said in his 1974 teaching on Marian devotions (Marialis Cultis): (D)espite the changed conditions of (our) times, for the majority of people, there remain unaltered the characteristic periods of the day — morning, noon and evening — which mark the periods of their activity and constitute an invitation to pause in prayer.”
Sources: Marialis Cultis; “Dictionary of the Liturgy”; “The Dictionary of Mary”; udayton.edu; “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”; Preces-latinae.org; fisheaters.com; and “Catholic Encyclopedia.”