Occasionally something that begins with a purely practical purpose will, over time, take on a spiritual significance and become part of the Church’s tradition. One good example of this is the church bell. Bells are so much a part of our tradition that the most basic iconic representation of a Church is a square building with a steeple or bell tower.
It is thought by some historians that bells first came into use in churches as early as the year 400, reportedly by Paulinus the bishop of Nola in Campania Italy. If fact, today the art of bell-ringing is call campanology. In centuries when people’s ability to tell time was primarily by tracking the movement of the sun through the sky, bells were used to summon the faithful to church for daily prayers, and the liturgy. The bells could also be rung to sound an alarm when a village was under attack, or buildings were on fire.
In the year 604 pope Sabinian formally approved the use of bells in Churches, and shortly after a blessing prayer for bells came into use which required the bishop to wash the bell inside and out with holy water.
Today most churches don’t have bell-ringers to sound their bells, and so have installed mechanical ringers, or have eliminated the bells all together in favor of digitally-sampled bells. The tradition of bell-ringing lives on, however, with popular hand-bell choirs that supplement the church’s repertoire of liturgical music. The Church still has a rite for the blessing of bells which includes this prayer:
Lord, from the beginning of time your voice has called to us, inviting us to communion with you, teaching us the mysteries of your life, guiding us on the way to salvation. With silver trumpets Moses summoned Israel to gather as your people. Now you are pleased that in the Church the sound of bells should summon your people to prayer. By this blessing + accept these bells into your service. May their voice direct our hearts toward you and prompt us to come gladly to this church, there to experience the presence of Christ, listen to your word, offer you our prayers, and both in joy and in sorrow be friends to one another.