by Joel V. Ocampo
During Christmas Season, we often hear this Christmas song,
“Kampana ng simbahan ay nagigising na.
At waring nagsasabi na tayo'y magsimba.
Maggising at magbangon, tayo'y magsilakad,
at masiglang tunguhin ang ating simbahan.”
The song continues,
“Ang kampana’y tuluyang naggigising
upang tayong lahat ay manalangin.
Ang bendisyon kapag nakamtan na,
tayo'y magkakaroon ng higit na pag-asa.”
Thus, when we hear the sound of the church bells, we associate it with the call to attend the Holy Mass or a call to prayer.
Ancient Use of Bell and the Way to Summon the Faithful
In the Old Testament, “gold bells” are part of the Priestly Vestments (Ex. 28:31-34). The priests wear it when ministering, that its sound may be heard as he enters and leaves the LORD’s presence in the sanctuary (Ex. 28:35). However, the bells are just small. (How could a priest wear a 200kg bell?)
To summon the faithful, the Lord instructed Moses to make silver trumpets. According to the Book of Numbers, “When both are blown, the whole community shall gather round you at the entrance of the tent of meeting; but when one of them is blown, only the tribal leaders, the heads of the clans of Israel, shall gather round you” (Numbers 10:3-4). Furthermore, “when you rejoice on your festivals, and your new-moon feasts, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your communion sacrifices, so that this serves as a reminder of you before your God” (Numbers 10:10). In other words, the sound and pattern of blow of these silver trumpets have different meanings, but it serves as a tool in calling the faithful for prayer and worship of God.
Bells During the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, monastic communities used the bell to call the monks to gather for prayer in the chapel. The sound of the bell alerts the monks working in the field, studying the Scriptures, and doing other chores to stop what they are doing and gather together in prayer. Soon, this tradition was adopted by different parishes and bells were installed in each church. Thus, the bells were used to call the people to the celebration of the Mass, and the recitation of the Angelus prayer throughout the day. In some parishes, the bells ring every hour. Some ring every 6:00AM, 12:00NN, and 6:00PM to invite the faithful to pray the Angelus; and at 8:00 or 9:00PM to call the faithful to pray the De Profundis, a slow, solemn and measured toll of the bell that marks the end of the day. Traditionally, when the De Profundis bell rang at the close of day, it reminded people to pray for the dead.
Bell Tolling Technique
In most parishes built by the Augustinians in the Philippines, at least seven bells are stationed on the belfry. These bells served as the community timekeeper, dictating on the townspeople everything from when they should wake up to when they should go to bed. It also determined the boundaries of the pueblo; the parish was as far as the bell could be heard. Each bell has a different size, role, and bell tolling technique.
As a bellringer myself in Holy Rosary Parish, Angeles City, a church built by the Augustinians in 1829, I use these bell tolling techniques: Aviso – from the Portuguese and Spanish word: “notice”. This is the first bell toll before the start of the Holy Mass. It gives notice to the people that there will be a celebration of the Holy Mass. The tone of the aviso depends if the Mass is a solemnity, a feast, a memorial, Advent/Lent, Easter, Christmas, or Ordinary Time. The aviso is followed by a measured stroke on the largest bell followed by two short strokes. This is repeated 5 times at 15-second intervals, after which 10 short strokes are struck every quarter of an hour until a few minutes before Mass. Then, just minutes before the Mass, the bell is rung continuously to announce the imminent start of Mass. During the start and end of a religious procession, the Dupical (also called Repique) tone will ring. In this bell toll, the rotating bell (or bells) is rung in succession to produce a melodic sound. There is also a specific bell toll to announce someone’s death.
In addition to these, church bells were also used to warn the people during fires, earthquakes, natural disasters, wars, and other emergencies. For example, tradition relates to us that there was once an eruption of the volcano on Mount Etna on the East coast of Sicily, Italy. Bells were rung when the volcano erupted, and through the intercession of St. Agatha, the volcano subsided. Thus, she became the patron saint of bell makers and bell ringers.
The Spiritual Power of the Bells of the Church
Apart from its role to call the faithful to prayer and worship, the church bells also have spiritual powers. During the solemn blessing of church bells, the priest says this prayer found in the Roman Ritual:
God, who decreed through blessed Moses, your servant and lawgiver, that silver trumpets should be made and be sounded at the time of sacrifice, in order to remind the people by their clear tones to prepare for your worship and to assemble for its celebration. Grant, we pray, that this bell, destined for your holy Church, may be hallowed by the Holy Spirit through our lowly ministry, so that when it is tolled and rung the faithful may be invited to the house of God and to the everlasting recompense. Let the people's faith and piety wax stronger whenever they hear its melodious peals. At its sound let all evil spirits be driven afar; let thunder and lightning, hail and storm be banished; let the power of your hand put down the evil powers of the air, causing them to tremble at the sound of this bell, and to flee at the sight of the holy cross engraved thereon. May our Lord Himself grant this, who overcame death on the gibbet of the cross, and who now reigns in the glory of God the Father, in the unity of the Father and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever.
After this prayer, the priest puts incense into the thurible, and sprinkles the bell with holy water while walking around it. Then the celebrant continues:
O Christ, the almighty ruler, as you once calmed the storm at sea when awakened in the boat from the sleep of your human nature, so now come with your benign help to the needs of your people, and pour out on this bell the dew of the Holy Spirit. Whenever it rings may the enemy of the good take flight, the Christian people hear the call to faith, the empire of Satan be terrified, your people be strengthened as they are called together in the Lord, and may the Holy Spirit be with them as He delighted to be with David when he played his harp. And as onetime thunder in the air frightened away a throng of enemies, while Samuel slew an unweaned lamb as a holocaust to the eternal King, so when the peal of this bell resounds in the clouds may a legion of angels stand watch over the assembly of your Church, the first-fruits of the faithful, and afford your ever-abiding protection to them in body and spirit. We ask this through you, Jesus Christ, who live and reign with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever.
Now, let us take note of these lines:
At its sound let all evil spirits be driven afar;
let thunder and lightning, hail and storm be banished;
let the power of your hand put down the evil powers of the air, causing them to tremble at the sound of this bell, and to flee at the sight of the holy cross engraved thereon.
Whenever it rings may the enemy of the good take flight,
the Christian people hear the call to faith,
the empire of Satan be terrified,
your people be strengthened as they are called together in the Lord,
when the peal of this bell resounds in the clouds may a legion of angels stand watch over the assembly of your Church.
The above quoted lines are just some of the spiritual powers of the church bells. At the sound of the church bell, “evil spirits are driven afar, the enemy of the good take flight, and the empire of Satan is terrified.” In addition, “legion of angels stand watch over the assembly of the Church.”
Finally, having learned the historical background, significance, and spiritual power of the church bells, let us be aware of their sound. In other places, the bells are called “Vox Dei” or “Voice of God.” Whenever we hear the bell, let us keep in mind that God is inviting us to pray, and this sound also acts as His audible presence in our community. Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD of the Diocese of Borongan once said on December 15, 2018, after the Bells of Balangiga were returned to the country, “When the bell rings for the Mass, it is God who calls us to congregate as a community, as his own people. He calls us to form one family before his presence, his family that prays, and become brothers and sisters in Christ.”
St. Dunstan and St. Agatha, patron saint of bellringers, pray for us!