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Message of faith absent in silent church bells

The oldest Catholic church in my hometown is an impressive structure with marble altars and beautiful mosaics and stained glass windows. The bell tower and steeple, rising 230 feet, dominate the horizon and symbolize the centrality of faith in the lives of the pioneer immigrant families who built it – a faith story common to many cities and towns across this country.

It’s a joy to reflect on that story, recall images and share memories of growing up there with family and classmates and, especially, my children. One vignette common to so many of us was the role in our upbringing of the bell tower, affectionately known as the "Watchman."

The town had a curfew for high school youth, and the Watchman was an impartial enforcer because the bell rang the hour and the half hour. Justice was swift. If one wasn’t inside the door by the strike of eleven, case closed. More than once I arrived in the nick of time, but there were some close misses, too. Kids from a few thousand families know precisely what I mean.

The Watchman was and is a protector, fittingly so for a parish named in honor of St. Joseph. The bells could be heard at a five-mile radius covering most of the city limits 50 years ago. Sometimes the bells were memorable.

I recall the tolling bell signaling the death of St. John XXIII and the joyful pealing of the bells announcing the election of Blessed Paul VI as his successor. The bells were an important and practical part of people’s lives. They told time, marked important events and rang five minutes before every Mass.

Yet the most important role for the bells, as I look back on it today, was the ringing of the Angelus at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. Three times every day for nearly a century, the bells rang and called people to pray in remembrance of the Archangel Gabriel’s greeting and announcement to the Blessed Virgin Mary, her response, and the stupendous saving act of God – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14).

Sometime in the late 1970’s the practice stopped. I was gone from my hometown by then, so I can’t say exactly why. Perhaps someone complained and invoked a noise ordinance. All I know is that church bells are too seldom heard today, not only in southern Indiana, but in the cities, towns and villages of Nebraska and elsewhere.

And I know too that the Angelus bells are not "noise." They are a reminder of the saving love of God in Christ Jesus – a fact so often forgotten in these times of cacophony and ear buds.

 

Bill Beckman is director of the archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. Contact him at wcbeckman@archomaha.org.

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