The bells at my parish had been silent for years. They rested in their tower quietly amid the wind, rain, and occasional flocks of pigeons. But starting two years ago, a few intrepid parishioners have been pushing the levers, awakening the bell clappers and some neighbors. Our lovely set of named bells ranges from big deep Adolphus (key of E) all the way down to tiny bright Gervaise (F-sharp). Adolphus is larger than a rather more famous bell here in Philadelphia, but he sings of a more perfect liberty. Each note on the scale is represented, but currently two bells—Elizabeth (G-sharp) and Edmund (C-sharp)—are out of commission, making renditions of “Immaculate Mary” or “Fly, Eagles, Fly” a little more difficult.
The goal is for bells to peal for daily Mass, after funerals, and for the noon and evening Angelus. We tried ringing the bells for the 6 a.m. Angelus but received angry phone calls within a few days. I thought about dropping off William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Catholic Bells” on the doorsteps of the aggrieved, but decided it was best to let sleeping neighbors lie. Sessions are conducted by a mixture of volunteers, a harried sacristan, a lazy custos (me), and enthusiastic altar servers. In good Catholic style, we sometimes ring late, sometimes early, and sometimes not at all. But more often than not our music is heard over the Victorian homes and row houses of West Philadelphia.
Why ring at all? It has been a long time since people set their watches to the noon-day pealing, and we hear of good news and bad by means of phone alerts rather than church chimes. Perhaps we do it in order to make our own contribution to the sound of the city. Daily we hear honking, laughter, sirens, birds, trolleys clanging, and the occasional drum circle. And now we hear the sound of bells, a small reminder that our urban landscape can be a spiritual landscape.
No doubt few people know the Angelus prayer and still fewer pause to pray it at our bidding. But bells remind us of churches, of joy, of loss, and perhaps of more ultimate things. As Williams writes:
Tho’ I’m no Catholic
I listen hard when the bells
in the yellow-brick tower
of their new church
ring down the leaves.
One pauses and one hears. Pausing and hearing can be the first step in faith. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalmist says.
So we ring out in the hope that someone might hear the call and enter. We ring out to add a touch of Christianity to these secular spaces. We ring out the death toll—rich and deep with Adolphus—hoping a college student will hear and suddenly catch on to what John Donne means when he says the bell tolls for us. We let parish children ring the bells so they can feel the reverberating joy of symbols old and new. And sometimes we ring for sheer joy. When the Philadelphia Eagles triumphed in the Super Bowl, amid the cacophony of car horns, shouting fans, fireworks, and the Eagles fight song, joyous sounds came from our bell tower. And a few weeks later, as we finally sang the Gloria on the Easter Vigil, we let them brightly sing out again for the triumph of Christ. God promises a new heaven and a new earth, so we celebrate the lasting joy of the Resurrection, but also the passing excitement of a Super Bowl.
Perhaps the new evangelization begins with such small gestures as the ringing of bells. One Saturday, a young woman, loaded with shopping bags, came in after I had rung the Angelus. She was new to our neighborhood and came in search of the bells she heard. Finding them in our half-crumbling, half-sublime church, she paused to sit in a pew for a few minutes. I spoke with her briefly, and brought her up the stairs to try the bell levers. I haven’t seen her come back, so I can’t claim a convert. But I maintain that it was not for naught. She was, for a moment, closer to Christ. We will keep ringing for her and for all, and for ringing’s own sake. As Williams writes:
O bells ring
for the ringing!
the beginning and the end
of the ringing! Ring ring
ring ring ring ring ring!
Terence Sweeney is a PhD student in philosophy at Villanova University.