The Covid-19 pandemic has made staying connected as a Parish Family, a difficult task. I have continued to celebrate Mass for you each day, but I have to admit that I dearly miss seeing your faces and hearing your responses and singing. This is a lonely time. Nevertheless, I want you to know that I have been praying for you and for an end to the pandemic very intently.
Some of you, who live close by the church, have already noticed that we are now ringing our Church bells regularly. On March 23rd, I received an email from Bishop Crosby requesting that bells be rung daily at 9am, 12noon, 3pm, and 6pm as an invitation to pray the Our Father. And I am very grateful to Ron Dietrich who has so diligently helped me to keep this schedule.
To some, bells may not seem such an important thing. But in the heritage of the Catholic Church, they play an important role. I’d like to share with you two very different ways of hearing bells.
The first way is that the tolling of bells can be perceived as noise, and many churches have been banned from ringing bells because of noise ordinances. To others, bells can mark that an event is taking place. The bells provide us with information. We hear the bells and we are reminded of the time of day.
This is the secular way of hearing bells. It is utilitarian when received in a positive light. But hearing the bells in this way does not inspire anyone to grow in faith, to turn to God, or to love another person.
But there is another way. There is the way of love. And it’s captured well in a meditation by John Donne, the great English poet. He was born and raised in a Catholic family and reluctantly became a cleric in the Church of England, during a time of great anti-Catholic sentiment.
No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
He has a Catholic approach to understanding humanity. We are not to be individualistic in our identity. We are meant to be in relationship with one another. In fact we are incomplete if we are not in relationship.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were.
John Donne values even the most insignificant part of something, because it contributes to the whole. A clod is just a clump of dirt. But even that little bit helps make the continent what it is. If it is washed away, the continent is smaller. A promontory is a larger piece of land. And it too is valuable and serves a purpose. Like St. Paul speaking of the body, there is no part which is unimportant no matter how small or insignificant it may appear. And this applies to people too.
John Donne then explains how this is relevant to humanity. He says:
Any man's death diminishes me
because I am involved in mankind;
To be a Christian is to be a member of humanity; a part of the Family of God. To be a Christian is to live out the commandment to love one another. It is making choices that build up a civilization of love. When someone dies, it should affect us. Another person’s suffering should cause us pain. And another person’s good fortune should bring us joy. During our current crisis, I’m sure we are all experiencing this truth more profoundly than ever.
The last line is perhaps the most famous. It speaks of the custom of tolling bells to call mourners to a funeral. In times past, when there was no internet, it often happened that a person would send a child to find out who died, in case they might want to attend the funeral. And this is precisely what John Donne is objecting to.
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
You see, it doesn’t matter whether or not you were friends with the person who died. If you are a Christian, then the person was family, and the tolling of the bell is more than just news; it’s an invitation to look beyond yourself and recognize the value and dignity of every person made in the image of God; of every soul Christ suffered for.
So the choice is before us. We can choose to hear the bells as information. Or we can choose to hear the bells as invitation.
In 2005 I was in Cologne, Germany for World Youth Day. It was a great privilege to be present at the evening vigil with 1.2 million people. Before we went to sleep on the hard lumpy ground, Pope Benedict did a beautiful thing. He blessed a church bell and gave it a name. He named the bell “John Paul II”.
Pope Benedict assured us that he missed his predecessor as much as we did. And as he bid us good night he told us that the next morning, we would be awakened by John Paul II. His strong beautiful tone would ring out again and invite us to join him and all the saints and angels of heaven in praising and worshipping God.
I assure you, that every single person heard that bell differently the next morning. And we rose with great joy and felt his presence.
All Church bells are given names when they are blessed. Here at St. Agatha we have five bells and although I have looked for their names, I haven’t been able to find them. If anyone happens to know the names, please let me know.
When you hear the bells ring, I hope you choose to hear them as Christians. And I hope you respond to their invitation to turn your attention to God; to pray for a moment; and to remember that you are not alone—you are part of a family that cares for you very much, even though we cannot be together at the moment.
This holy season of Lent has brought us sacrifices and penances that we could not have foreseen. I am especially thinking of those who are suffering the loss of loved ones or personal illness; those who are facing unemployment and great uncertainty; those who are experiencing deep anxiety, loneliness, depression or fear. Let us offer up our sufferings, in union with the sufferings of Jesus. Let us continue to pray and do penance for the end of the pandemic and the needs of others at this time. But let us also remember that there will be victory over the grave; for we are an Easter People and we live out of the power of the Resurrection.
With Love & Prayers as we prepare for Easter,
Reflection on Bells
Palm Sunday, 2020
St. Agatha Church