The Pealing of Church Bells
Something has become increasingly apparent since the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. It has temporarily changed the landscape in which priestly ministry is lived. While we are configured to Christ the High Priest in our persons, and we are ordained for sacrifice and service, we are carried along in how we live out that most holy configuration and calling by the ordinary, routine concerns of our ministry in the world and for the People of God. What was once the assumed order of ministry has, in some ways, been turned on its head.
The suspension of the public celebration of the Mass (in many dioceses), central to our priesthood and to the faith lives of our people, and the cancellation of parish activities — from the Lenten fish fry to those events geared toward helping others more deeply experience this sacred season — have had an impact that is already being felt deeply by brother priests, myself and those we serve.
All those things that once brought order to our lives, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the celebration of the Mass with and for our faithful, visits to homebound parishioners, anointings, and office work, have taken on a new form as we have done our best to adapt to what, for the time being, is a new paradigm of ministry, much of it done through the internet.
In the midst of so much that is new, so much that is changed, there is a reality at the parish at which I am assigned that, with its own unique but unchanged rhythm, offers a comforting regularity in the midst of so much innovation and uncertainty.
Voices of Bells
Standing high atop St. Bernard Church in Pittsburgh is its bell tower In which is housed three such instruments dedicated to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John Francis Regis and St. Thomas Aquinas. Just as it happens at so many Christian churches throughout the world, these bells toll daily, their voices reverberating across the community and marking the passing of the hours, calling the faithful to prayer, joyfully introducing a newlywed couple and somberly announcing the passing of our beloved dead. Even with so many changes during these recent weeks, they continue pealing day after day, unaffected in their perch high above the surrounding community.
While it is thought that the first church bells rang out as early as the fifth century in Italy, the bells of St. Bernard Church were consecrated, installed and first rung in the year 1947, and their proud sounds have ever since offered a sense of sacred order — now, even nostalgia — amid the hustle and bustle of the ever-changing city and suburb.
It is difficult to describe how strange it was, during the first Sunday in which our faithful could not gather to participate in the celebration of the Mass, to hear the bells ring out at the customary times, but across an empty parking lot, over a property devoid of the sound of closing car doors, hurried feet and reverently quieted conversation. While the bells still ring to call us to prayer, for now, they do not call us together, at least in the physical sense, and that prayer must proceed in a different but hopefully no less fervent way.
Most pertinent to our current circumstances, church bells serve another, less-known purpose, one for which each is consecrated before ever first ringing out. In the Roman Ritual, the prayer used at the blessing of a church bell implores almighty God that, when sounded, the bell will serve numerous purposes, among them to “invite the faithful to the house of God and to eternal recompense”; to, when heard, “let piety wax stronger in thy servants so often as their ears perceive the melodious peals”; and “let evil spirits fly in terror, let thunder and lightning, hail and storm be banished.”
A second prayer, offered after the bell has been sprinkled with holy water and incensed, reads in part: “And as one time the thunder dispersed the host of foes while Samuel slew a mother-sheep as an offering to the eternal King, so when the peal of this bell penetrates the clouds, may the angelic legion guard the congress of worshippers.”
Now, perhaps more than at any time in our living memory, we are in great need of the intervention of our heavenly Father and of the angelic hosts, even when we cannot be assembled together under one roof to lift our prayers of supplication to heaven. You and I are called upon as Christians, and especially as good and holy priests, to remain faithful and faith-filled, uplifted by our confidence in God’s intervening help, especially as the access of our people to the sacraments has become increasingly restricted. We are called upon to pray to God for their protection, to unite our voices with theirs in imploring God’s presence in all of our lives, even when we are separated from them.
The bells of our churches, if we have them, can and should serve as a powerful tool to remind us, to remind them, that we cannot cease praying simply because we cannot congregate for the celebration of our liturgies. Let them ring out! Let them be heard! Let them call all who hear them to offer the great prayers of the Church that have served as such a source of comfort for more than two millennia, among them the Angelus, in which we recall the involvement of an angel and the response in faith of the Blessed Virgin in submission to God’s holy will. May we be strengthened, likewise, to submit ourselves now more than ever to God’s will, and entrust ourselves to his saving protection.
May the ringing of the bells of our churches, whenever they sound in our ears and across our parishes, serve the purpose for which they were consecrated, most especially in dispersing all that would do us harm. May they remind us of the joys that are experienced when we are able to gather together in prayer and in praise, giving us something toward which to strive, and for which to hope. May their unchanged rhythm remind us of who we are and what we should be about, regardless of any secular restrictions we experience, until such time as they call us together again.
FATHER BENJAMIN BARR was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2017 and is a parochial vicar for St. Bernard and Our Lady of Grace parishes.
Bells and the Papacy
Many are familiar with the white plumes of smoke from the Vatican that signify that a new pope has been elected. But in 1978, the smoke from the chimney was gray causing some confusion. Officials now burn ballots with additives to ensure the smoke colors are unmistakable.
In October 2009, it was announced, for the first time ever, church officials will ring bells to announce the election of the new pope.
When Pope Benedict XVI resigned on Feb. 28, 2013, church bells rang in Austria for 15 minutes to mark the end of Pope Benedict’s papacy.