All week I look forward to Sunday Mass and Holy Communion. I especially love Sunday mornings. During the warmer months, when the windows are open, I can often hear the church bells for at least one of the three Masses for Sundays. I'm usually praying at the time and the bells remind me how my prayer is united to the prayer of the Church, especially the Mass. My daily prayer, lectio and meditation, is centered upon the liturgy and readings of the day. I've developed a naive understanding of the verse from the Book of Revelation in connection with the daily readings at Mass, which reads: "Let him who has ears heed the Spirit's word to the churches." Oddly enough, I think of church bells in much the same way.
Bells and such instruments as cymbals and gongs date back to ancient cultures, used in ritual and worship, to summon worshipers, to offer praise or signify the divine presence, as well as to ward off evil, frighten spirits, marauders, storms, and so on. In Catholic tradition, bells serve pretty much the same function.
The first ecclesiastical use of bells was to announce the hour of church services. It is plain that in the days before watches and clocks some such signal must have been a necessity, more especially in religious communities which assembled many times a day to sing the Divine praises.Demons scattered and put to flight.
In Rome on the evening before a fast day, the bells are rung for a quarters of an hour in all the parish churches to remind people of their obligation on the morrow.
In Rome, the "De Profundis" is rung every evening by the parish churches one hour after the Ave Maria. Clement XII in 1736 granted an indulgence for this practice and endeavoured to extend it. This custom is observed in many other places, particularly in North America.
The Curfew (ignitegium), a warning to extinguish fires and lights, after which all respectable characters went home to bed, was possibly of ecclesiastical origin but seems to have been rung as a rule by the town bell (compana communiae, bancloche). Still in many cases one of the church bells was used for this and similar purposes. In England this was particularly frequent, and in many small towns and parishes the curfew is rung to this day at hours varying from 8 p.m. to 10.
The Angelus or Ave Maria may or may not have developed out of the curfew. There seems good reason to believe that a special bell, often called the Gabriel bell, was devoted to this purpose.
From the introduction of the Elevation of the Host in the Mass at the beginning of the thirteenth century it seems to have been customary to ring one of the great bells of the church, at any rate during the principal Mass, at the moment when the Sacred Host was raised on high. This was to give warning to the people at work in the fields in order that they might momentarily knell down and make an act of adoration. - Source
Church bells are normally christened or 'baptized' - in other words consecrated, as well as named or dedicated to a patron saint. The custom dates back to at least medieval times. Hence the sacramental function of bells is explained and perhaps understood more clearly:
Some rude lines quoted in the gloss of the "Corpus Juris", and often found in inscriptions, describe the principal functions of a bell (cf. Longfellow, The Golden Legend):Laudo Deum verum plebem voco congrego clerum
Defunctos ploro, nimbum fugo, festa decoro.
(I praise the true God, I call the people, I assemble the clergy;
I bewail the dead, I dispense storm clouds, I do honour to feasts.)
Or otherwise:Funera plango fulmina frango sabbata pango
Excito lentos dissipo ventos paco cruentos
(At obsequies I mourn, the thunderbolts I scatter, I ring in the sabbaths;
I hustle the sluggards, I drive away storms, I proclaim peace after bloodshed.)
As society becomes more secularized and less tolerant of religious freedom, this may be one reason why neighbors of inner city churches now complain that the bells are a nusaince and seek to have them silenced.*For more information on bells go here.
"Do you hear those bells Sister?"
"No Father, I can't hear shit with my ears covered like this!"