Bells were part of church long before Christmas

By | December 4, 2009

Bells themselves, however, have a much longer history in the church. While bells in church towers and town halls became popular around the eighth century, bells have an even longer history in worship. Ancient Chinese, Babylonians and Egyptians used them in worship. And the Old Testament tells us that Moses’ brother, Aaron, wore gold bells on the skirts of his priestly vestments (Ex. 28:33-35 and 39:25-26).

As liturgical forms developed in the early Christian church, bells were used for a couple of purposes. One was to summon people to prayer; the other was directly a part of worship. These handheld bells, unlike the small bells on garments or horses, first developed as gongs or even wooden percussion instruments.

These wood instruments, called semantron in Greek, developed in the monastic tradition and were a way to summon monks for prayer and liturgy. Semantrons, made of wood or metal, are still common in the Orthodox churches.

However, it was not from the East that the cup-shaped bells we know today entered the church. Instead, it was largely due to the Irish and Celtic missionaries who adapted square-shaped cow bells and used them to announce their arrivals in town.

Many of these ancient bells — called clog in Gaelic (from which came the German glocke as in “glockenspiel”) — are preserved today. A plain iron bell, said to be St. Patrick’s (d. 493), can be seen in Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

Using bells to summon people for prayer or significant events in the community developed out of these missionary bells, and bell towers with fixed bells became common by the early Middle Ages, around 600 A.D. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that Pope Stephen II (752-757) erected a tower with three bells at the first St. Peter’s Basilica. The present large bell at St. Peter’s, weighing seven tons, may date to these bells, but it has been recast many times. The last time was under Pope Pius VI in 1785.

These larger bells were used — in days when watches and clocks were rare — to announce Masses and prayer services. With time, the bells came to be used to announce other events. There was “the passing bell” when someone was dying, the funeral toll and the warning during storms, as well as joyous times like weddings or Christmas.

Bells became such a part of church life that when new bells were placed in bell towers, they were blessed and dedicated to a particular saint. This was sometimes erroneously called the “baptism of bells.” For example, on Jan. 15, 1882, the five bells in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay were blessed. The largest, in the north tower, is dedicated to St. Paul — and engraved with the apostle’s name.

Bells were also used to announce prayer — the most famous being the “Angelus bell,” used at morning, noon and evening prayer. Some bells in towers were also used to announce the moment of consecration during Mass. This is still done with the bell at St. Peter’s. During the Middle Ages, because of a sense of unworthiness, many people did not often attend Mass. However, the pealing of the bell at the elevation allowed them to pause and pray while they were at work.

Similarly, inside churches, the smaller, hand-held Sanctus or altar bells also developed, around the 13th century. Since Mass was celebrated in Latin, which few spoke, people often said personal prayers during the Mass. The Sanctus bells were rung to draw their attention at the moment the Body of Christ became present on the altar.

Church historian Matthew Herrera notes that altar bells had been part of church culture for more than three centuries before the Council of Trent mandated their use during the Mass. With the Novus Ordo Mass in 1970, following Vatican II, altar bells became optional and are used according to local tradition. Their use at High Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (sometimes called the Tridentine Mass) of 1962 is still part of the Roman Missal (the liturgical book).

However they have been used, bells have added to our prayer, praise and worship. They have welcomed us to Mass, joined us in prayer, and told us of joys and sorrows. As we approach Christmas, we will hear bells in the secular world as well — from collection kettles to reindeer harnesses. But each time we hear bells, we should remember their history in the church. And then we can join in one of the alternate lyrics to the Ukrainian Bell Carol: “Ring Christmas bells, merrily ring, tell all the world, Jesus is King.”

Sources: Green Bay Diocese archives, The Catholic Encyclopedia; Sanctus Bells, History and Use in the Catholic Church;

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