The first recorded mentioning of Bells is found in the Book of Exodus. The Old Testament records that Aaron, the High Priest, was given instructions on how he should dress in the performance of his ministry upon entering the Tabernacle: “… Bells of pure gold were also made and put between the pomegranates all around the hem of the robe which was to be worn in performing the ministry — all this, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (Ch. 39:24)
“Tintinnabula” was the Latin word for bells; often it could be more correctly rendered as the word for “gong” or “cymbal.” Its purpose was a signal to announce the time for some event before the inventions of watches and clocks.
The first Christian writer, Gregory of Tours (c. 585), speaks of bells (signa) when he writes “they were run before church services that they might rouse the monks from their beds.” St. Columban (615) is said to have assembled the community by ringing the bell when one of his monks was dying.
In the early Middle Ages the word “compana” meant a church bell. Pope Stephen II (752-757) erected a belfry with three bells at St. Peter’s in Rome. By the 8th century, the bells began to be regarded as an essential part of the equipment of every church so that church towers were built for the express purpose of hanging bells in them. St. Francis Xavier used a hand bell in Goa, India, to gather the children to teach them their catechism in 1542, and for nearly twelve hundred years bells have been used to announce important religious and national events.
The ringing of the bells is “the calling” of the Faithful to prayer… the announcing of death… the procession of a funeral… the consecration of the Holy Eucharist at Mass, and the celebration of a Marriage. Bells are run for the Angelus, a prayer said at dawn, noon, and night which commemorates the mystery of the Incarnation when Mary said “Yes” to God with her words: “Thy Will be done” and gave birth to Jesus, God’s Eternal Son.
An hour after the Angelus, the Bells are again rung for the “De Profundis,” a prayer for all our deceased loved ones who have gone home to God. In Rome, on the evening before a fast day, the bells are rung for a quarter of an hour in all the parish churches to remind people of their obligation on the morrow.
Today our church tolls the bells fifteen minutes before the Masses so that the Faithful will be on time for the celebration of the Liturgy. At wedding the bells are pealed in jubilation on the occasion of the celebration of the Sacrament of Matrimony. During Holy Week the bells are silent from the Gloria of the Mass on Holy Thursday until the Gloria on Holy Saturday, reminding us that God’s Son died on Good Friday on Calvary Heights.
The Liberty Bell is America’s symbol for the Voice of Freedom; the Bells ringing in our churches are a symbol for the Voice of God. The largest bell consecrated with the rite of the Catholic Church is that of Cologne Cathedral, which was made out of captured French cannons, and weighs nearly twenty-seven tons.