A standard feature of many churches is the bell tower. One might wonder why churches have bells.
Church bells can be used to signify different things. One of the oldest purposes is to signify (“Your attention Please”) that it is time to come to church to worship. This practice dates back to at least the sixth century. In centuries long past many people did not have watches or clocks. So, the ringing of the church bells was very important. Even today, we have watches but I know of some people who live near the church who wait for the ringing of the bells to walk the one block to church.
Thus, the bells brought to the people’s attention that it was time to come to church. Church bells often also ring on the hour (with the number of rings signifying the hour of the day). Again, this had its origin in the days when many people did not have watches. So, the hourly bells brought to their “attention” the time of day.
The bells are also sometimes rung at funerals, bringing to attention the death of the person.
Another common time for the ringing of church bells in Catholic Churches is for the Angelus. Traditionally, this is done at 6 am, noon, and 6 pm. (Many churches move the 6 am bell to a little later in the morning, respecting overnight noise ordinances, respecting people’s sleep.)
So far, I have focused on the large bells in the bell tower. In Catholic Churches, small hand bells are often rung by an altar server during the Consecration. Again, this serves the purpose of bringing everyone’s attention that something very important is happening as the Body and Blood are lifted up at the Consecration. This started in the days when Mass was in Latin. Many people did not understand Latin. So, the ringing of the bells was important to signify the time of the elevation. Mass today is normally in the local language but many churches have brought back the ringing of the bells to draw our attention to what is going on at that very special moment.
Bells are also rung during the Gloria on Holy Thursday and at the Easter Vigil. The Gloria is not said or sung during Lent. The ringing of the bells on Holy Thursday brings our attention to our renewed glory as we celebrate the death and Resurrection of Jesus.
So, the bells bring our “attention” to important moments.