How the bells call us to prayer

“Why does my church ring bells at noon? There seems to be a pattern to it, but it isn’t striking 12 times. What’s it mean?” — Appleton

 

The pattern you’re hearing is probably three strikes, a pause, three strikes, another pause, and three more strikes. A longer pause follows and then a final pealing of the bells. (This last peal usually contains a total of nine more strikes.)

These bells usually ring at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. They are the Angelus call to prayer.

Morning, noon and night

While not as common now, there was a time when nearly every town across Europe was regulated by Angelus bells at dawn, noon and evening. It developed in a time when most people didn’t have clocks, much less phones to tell them the time.

This pattern of bell ringing follows the pattern of the Angelus prayer, which consists of three short verses (called versicles) separated by three Hail Marys:

 

Angelus Prayer

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary:

And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary,…

 

Behold the handmaid of the Lord:

Be it done unto me according to your word.

Hail Mary…

 

And the Word was made flesh:

And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary…

 

The Angelus takes its name from the words the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary in Luke’s Gospel (1:26-38): Angelus Domini nuntiavit Maria, (“the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary”). The prayer developed into its distinctive triple pattern over a period of centuries, but most historical sources agree that it was patterned after the daily prayer of medieval monasteries. Today, we call this the Liturgy of the Hours: which includes morning, noon and evening prayer.

Evening came first

The Angelus bell first appeared as a single evening call, probably dating back to the 14th century in Italy. 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 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 the Angelus in the morning seems to have come into practice next, though exactly when is not clear.

In 1456, Pope Callistus III ordered bells rung at midday, along with the praying of three Hail Marys. It was a time of war and there was an anticipated invasion by the Turks.

Further, there is also a tie between praying the Angelus at noon with the Passion, since this is the hour that Christ was upon the cross when the sky went dark.

The final nine bells, or the pealing of bells, is a sign of joy at May’s response and the salvation brought about through the Incarnation of Christ. As for the final number of nine strikes in this pealing of the bells, the reason is not clear. However, there are traditionally nine choirs of angels who, no doubt, rejoiced in Mary’s response.

 

Kasten is an associate editor at The Compass and holds a master’s degree in theological studies from St. Norbert College in De Pere.