When bells bring good news — and chocolates

By | April 3, 2010

Bells are so important in our faith life that they are blessed

While we often think of bells as part of the Christmas celebration, bells also have a role in Easter. Besides bells heralding Easter morning and being used exuberantly during Easter Masses — such as at the Gloria — bells are also connected to Easter eggs.

In some European countries, especially France, but also in Belgium and the Netherlands, bells — not rabbits — are said to bring Easter candy. Traditionally, bells are silenced from Holy Thursday until Easter Sunday, in mourning for the death of the Lord. Children are told that the bells leave their steeples on Holy Thursday and fly to Rome where they rest on the roof of St. Peter’s, waiting to see the pope on Easter morning. Then the bells fly back home and, as they ring their Easter tidings, eggs and chocolates fall from them.

While bells don’t fly, they have been part of church ritual since ancient Christian monasteries of the East struck wooden boards to summon people to prayer. Bells have been used to summon the faithful, announce weddings, ring out danger and send forth the dead to their graves. Bells are so important, in fact, that they are blessed before being put into service.

This blessing has sometimes, incorrectly, been called “the baptism of bells.”

Blessing of bells with oil, water and prayers dates back to the first millennium of the church. The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that rituals of blessing church bells were in place by the beginning of what became the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne, who was crowned in the year 800.

Today, according to the U.S. bishop’s Committee on Divine Worship, the ceremony for blessing bells is ideally done by the local bishop. The rite includes Scripture readings, petitions and songs. The bells are blessed with holy water and incense is burned. The bells may also be rung, even though they have not yet been placed in a bell tower.

Bells are also often dedicated to a particular saint and inscribed with that saint’s name, as well as other pertinent information. For example, the bells in the two towers of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay are named Paul (in the north tower) and Augustine, Boniface, Mary and Joseph (in the south tower). They were dedicated on Jan. 15, 1882.

The older ritual of blessing of bells, practiced for centuries, was a bit more elaborate. According to the “Catholic Encyclopedia,” this included prayers of exorcism against “phantoms, storms and lightning,” washing the bells with salted water, anointing the outside of the bells with the Oil of the Sick in seven places and on the inside with Holy Chrism in four places, marking the sign of the cross on the bells and the use of incense.

By the means of these blessings, elaborate or simple, we have dedicated our bells to sacred service, to the work of the church.

Bells blessed by the church are considered sacramentals. As Vatican II reminded us in its document on the liturgy, sacramentals “signify effects, particularly of a spiritual kind, that are obtained through the church’s intercession. They dispose people to receive the chief effect of the sacraments and they make holy various occasions in human life.”

The ringing of church bells announces the holiness that is present at various times in our faith life — from marriage to burials, from baptism to our coming together each Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. Bells helps us in our mission to announce the Good News. While that announcement of Good News may not always include Easter eggs, it certainly is sweeter than chocolate.

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy”; “Sanctus Bells, History and Use in the Catholic Church”; diocesan Archives; “Catholic Answers” at www.catholic.org; and the Dictionary of the Liturgy.

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