Over at Crux, John Allen reports on the Italian “battle of the bells.” He notes the new norms issued by the bishop of Savona-Noli to address what is apparently an ongoing controversy over the ringing of church bells. Opponents criticize their “acoustic pollution” and want curbs. Accommodating bishops—like in that diocese—appear to be adopting acoustic rubrics.
In the case of Savona-Noli, it’s an average of 90 seconds of ringing at a volume “not to be a source of disturbances,” with no peals prior to 7:30 a.m. nor past 9 p.m. and definitely not every hour on the hour. Allen chimes in with the observation that “churches of more recent construction” can adjust volume levels because they have substituted canned bells (i.e., recordings) for the real gong.
To provide historical perspective, the story notes that episcopal accommodators go back a while, from the Hamlet Giovanni Battista Montini (St. Paul VI) to the “giant” darling of modernity Carlo Maria Martini, who both sought to moderate bell ringing.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In defense of those steeple denizens, I join with Evie Tornquist Karlsson and, in the words of her hit song, urge: “C’mon, ring those bells!“
The Catholic Church is “sacramental” in the sense that it makes visibly present invisible realities of grace. That’s why the Church defends the seven sacraments Christ entrusted to her, in contrast to the desiccated Christianity of Protestants that kept two, maybe three sacraments and even generally managed to sideline the Eucharist as the normative ecclesial act.
A church bell is a sacramental, not like the Eucharist but like holy water, blessed candles, scapulars, and wedding rings. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “they prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and to sanctify different circumstances of life” (1677). Quoting Vatican II, the Catechism reminds us that through sacramentals, “’various occasions in life are rendered holy’” (1667).
The sacraments and sacramentals all engage the whole man, body and soul. Bodily beings are sensory beings. They have five senses. Church bells make the Church present in sound.
When church bells ring before Mass, they’re not just “five minute warning bells” for Catholics in the United States still sitting in the parking lot or Catholics in Italy tarrying at the local café for their last sigaretta drags. They happily announce, “Come, sons and daughters, because the Son of God is coming in a few moments to you.”
When church bells ring the Angelus at 6 a.m. (oooh, those poor sleepy Italians), noon, and 6 p.m., they ask two things: have you prayed today, and have you talked to your Mama?
And the “three bells?” When church bells announce a baptism, a new Christian has been reborn of water and the Spirit. When church bells peal for a wedding, they announce love and that the chance of a new life has once more entered the world. When church bells toll someone’s death, they call the community to prayer and remind hearers that one day “they [will] toll for thee.”
Even when church bells strike the hour, they remind people they are living on God’s time, which is passing like their lives for which they will give an account. (When I studied at Fordham, in the Bronx, I sometimes attended the Italian parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, on 187th Street. There’s a plaque in the vestibule that speaks of its bells that remind people of the passage of time and that “when time stops, eternity begins.”)
Now, I know that all these considerations notwithstanding, “true moderation,” especially not to “cause anyone avoidable annoyance,” is what is truly important in the eyes of gli signori vescovi. We must not disturb those secularized Italians (and Americans and Frenchmen and now Poles) whose consciences also ring out as they lie in bed on Sunday mornings. Nor must we bother those laïcité types the world over, calling for the secularized to unite because “you have nothing to lose but your religion.” The latter is, after all, a specter needing exorcism from the public square and public life.
Religion is, after all, nettlesome. Like the icon of the Holy Family on display in an obstetrics ward in Venice, whose removal is being demanded because seeing it might cause second thoughts to mothers on their way to an abortionist. Or crosses at Jesuit universities being appropriately veiled lest they intrude on a politician’s photo op.
Like children, the Church is best neither seen nor heard.
What is disturbing is the apparent acquiescence of some bishops in that gag order. I won’t even comment on “non-clericalist” bishops who let freedom ring when it comes to doctrinal “diversity” but apparently have time to sound the alarm with bell-ringing rules.
Church steeples point men’s attention beyond the horizontal, the level of their eyes, and church bells are acoustic reminders of transcendence. Today’s world needs more, not less, of those reminders. A landscape devoid of church towers, a place devoid of church bells, is truly an inhuman world, because man’s humanity and God’s Divinity—a God who habitavit in nobis—stand in direct, not inverse ratios.
I’m reminded of that every morning, when, on otherwise empty streets of a politics-centric Washington, the bells of St. Dominic’s on 6th Street SW swell to ring out at 7 a.m., reminding anyone who cares that man does not live on free lunches and entitlements alone.
In 1927, the Polish poet Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna wrote a poem about a village church in rural Poland. My non-poetic translation:
Though the rooster hasn’t yet crowed,
Though the bucket on the well hasn’t yet squeaked its way down,
Though the fat sparrows haven’t yet fallen by the roadside,
Though the thief hasn’t yet gone to bed after a night of evil-doing,
Already the church is trembling
Its blood already rushing and pulsing,
It must sound,
It must strike up its bells!
Blessed is the place where church bells sound.
[Image: “The Bell Ringers” by Henry Ryland]