The Significance of the Bells
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
Vicar General, Diocese of Borongan
December 15, 2018, Church of St. Lawrence
Allow me, at the outset, to use the words of the Psalmist (Ps 118:24): “This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice in it and be glad!” This day is significant indeed, because it marks a historic event in the life of the people in the parish of St. Lawrence and in the Diocese of Borongan, and of the country as a whole. At last, the three bells of Balangiga, taken 117 years ago, are back to their home!
For a man of faith, this is a work of God. This is the reason why the Diocese of Borongan, together with many people who rejoice with us, come together to celebrate the Eucharist, as an act of thanksgiving for this great gift—an advance Christmas gift!
But God brought this about through the instrumentality of men and women who labored for decades to bring them home. To the list of various individuals and groups mentioned in the media, which included US and Philippine Presidents, senators, cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, historians, philanthropists, and many others who, in the words of US Ambassador Sung Kim, “worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the history of the bells and to advocate for their dignified return,” we might also add Philippine and US Bishops, Bishops of the Diocese of Borongan, priests, and Estehanon groups and individuals.
Thank God for their efforts.
CURRENT VIEWS ON THE BLESS OF BALANGIGA
But we have to ask: What is the significance of the these bells? Why are they so important to us?
Two perspectives. To date, there are two major views on the bells that one reads from books and from traditional and social media. For many Filipinos, the bells symbolize courage, struggle for independence and victory over foreign invaders. For many, on the other hand, they are trophies of war and represent a lasting memorial of the more than 50 American soldiers killed in the Balangiga massacre.
Third point of view. But we need to take these as the only valid alternatives. After all, both perspectives focus on the political use made of the bells. As Catholics, we have to look at them from the point of view of faith. We have to see them from what bells are all about, in the first place.
BELLS IN CATHOLIC UNDERSTANDING
What is the meaning of church bells in Catholicism? First: Bells Are a Symbol of God’s Voice. In the rite of blessing used during the Spanish times, Psalm 28 (29):4 which says, “vox Domini in virtus, voc Domini in magnificencia”, is used, obviously to point out that church bells symbolize the voice of God. For a man of faith, when a church bell rings, he takes it as a call from God himself.
So, when the bell rings for the Mass, it is God who calls us to congregate as a community, as his own people. He calls us to form one family before his presence, his family that prays, and become brothers and sisters in Christ.
When the bell rings for baptism, wedding and funeral, it is God who calls us to experience his presence in the decisive moments of our existence. When the bell rings for the angelus, the anima, it is God himself who call us to pray in his Spirit. Second: Bells are Means to Holiness. But aside from its symbolism, bells are also means to holiness. There is only one call for everyone, and it is to be holy. Church bells are a help to that end. This means that if one hears and obeys the sound of the bell, he or she is in the right direction of life.
This is the reason why, it is used, a church bell has to be blessed. In fact, in the old rite of blessing, sacred oils were used in the interior and exterior of the bell. Clearly, it becomes a sacred object. It is transformed into a sacramental. It sanctifies events in moments of our lives, it makes us aware of God’s presence in our daily talk and walk. Third: Bells Are Set Apart for Sacred Use. Also of importance to stress, the blessing of the bells is done to set it aside for the use of the service of God. It is thus understandable that there were legislations in many countries against their use for merely secular purposes, and the church made it a principle that the control of bells rests on the clergy. In Catholic observance, the doorkeeper (ostiarius) was ordained for that purpose, though in practice, the sacristan has control of them.
In accord with this principle, it is obvious that they cannot be used to signal a rebellion, or be converted into a war trophy. Fourth: Church Bells Create Pilgrims. What, however, does the bell mean for a person of faith who hears? The bell is not an end in itself. It is useless unless it is rang and heard.
When one hears the tolling of the bell, he moves from where he is, and the moment he travels toward the place where the bells rings, he becomes a pilgrim. He becomes like Abraham who left his homeland and went to the land God had promised him. Thus, he moves to where God is, in the church, in the Blessed Sacrament, in the liturgical celebrations.
Church bells, therefore, make a pilgrim out of the believer. In effect, the life of a faithful pilgrim is linked to the pealing of the bells. It reminds him to walk toward God, to walk in God and to walk with God. I awakens in him sentiments of faith, hope and love. It reminds him of his supernatural vocation—the kingdom of god is really his home. Fifth: Bells Engender New Mary’s and Martha’s. Because bells make the hearer a pilgrim to where God is, they make him a listener of God’s Word, and offeror of prayers, persevering in communion with others and exercising humble service of God in his fellow men. It is not, therefore, without reason that in the old Ceremonial of Bishops, the blessing of bells concluded with the chanting from Luke 10:38-42 on the periscope on the hospitality of Mary and Martha. Through the tolling of Church bells, new Mary’s and Martha’s are born.
Thus, it can be noticed that, in Catholic understanding, the bells are very rich in meaning.
BELLS IN THE CATHOLIC CULTURE OF A PARISH
But, how did this understanding of Church bells work in the context of a rural parish, like Balangiga? To understand this, we have to go back to history.
Pre-Hispanic Village and the Reduccion Program. When the Spaniards came to the island of Samar, one of the major difficulties they encountered was the Samarenyo settlement pattern. The natives were greatly dispersed. Though pre-Hispanic natives speak of bungto, there were no towns yet, if by town we mean a concentration of houses with street divisions. No, there was none. The Samarenyos found it difficult to live afar from their fields.
One of the revolutionary steps the Spaniards embarked on was to engage in a program called reduccion. Here, people were asked to adapt themselves to a town planning in which the church and the convent stand in front in front of the church plaza, and around the latter were the houses of the prominent men and other inhabitants. A town must also have a tribunal and a cemetery. It was always a source of pride and prestige for a village to have these basic structures and to have a resident priest. No pueblo or municipality could be established without them.
In fact, during Spanish time, when there was a dearth of clocks and no sound system, it is not an exaggeration to say that the life of the village somehow revolves around the bell—it rang to tell them to gather for the Mass, to pray the Angelus, to succor the souls in purgatory during the anima, to tell the time, to announce big events, to signal emergencies, to wan of Moro raids or impending disaster.
Thus, the bell was an integral part of the Filipino village. Its sound was the only one that could be heard by all. Nobody could escape it, since people lived bajo las campanas. No wonder, when the bells of a parish did not ring, it is as if the town were dead. When I was young, my mother used to say, there is something missing when the church bell does not ring. It is like Viernes Santo, when the death of our Lord is commemorated and bells are loudly silent.
Church Law on Bells. Perhaps, one might wonder, how many bells should a parish have? According to the law of the Church at that time, a parish should have at least two or three church bells. It is not surprising, then, that Balangiga had three of them at the end of the Spanish regime.
Various Styles of Ringing the Bells. But why three bells? The reason is that, the differences in the manner of ringing them, and the number of bells employed indicate the nature of the celebrations and its rank in the hierarchy of celebrations. One can assume that during the Spanish period, the Balangiganons, just by listening to the pealing, knew and easily distinguished whether the bells were rang for mass, for angelus, for fiestas, for animas, for those in agony, for a dead man or dead women, or child, or for an impending disaster.
Knowing Church practice, one can assume that it was more likely that not just one but all the three bells were rang during the attack on the American camp in Balangiga on Sept. 28, 1901.
A Double-Dead Town. When the Americans came back to Balangiga after the bloody affair, the town was dead. It was almost deserted. But not long after, the place became double-dead, because all its bells were transported elsewhere. The town was deprived of an essential element of their bucolic life—the tolling of the three bells. Understandably enough, the effort to bring back the bells did not simply reflect a longing for them a priceless heritage. For a people of faith, it was an effort to reclaim an essential part of religious and cultural life.
CHALLENGES OF THE RETURN OF THE BELLS
But now that the bells are here, what does that mean for a people of faith? Permit me to conclude this piece with two challenges, one at the level of action, the other at the level of faith.
A Museum for the Bells? The bells considered in the light of their significance in Catholicism and their cultural context in the parish, the most logical thing to do is to put the bells in the right place—a bell tower, and use them in accord with the intention of the owner—the Catholic Church. To place them in a museum, whether in Balangiga or elsewhere, is virtually to kill them. To ring them again is to give them life, to be truthful and faithful to the purposes for which they were cast.
This, of course, is not to overlook the significance it has acquired for the nation after the Balangiga affair, but, for people of faith, there are values the bells represent that transcend political concerns.
Moreover, it would be more in accord with the spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness between the United States and the Philippines to put them in the place where they were before the Philippine-American conflict—the parish church. That would even strengthen the bond between the two countries forged after Independence to date, and bury hate and conflict that were kindled during that deplorable episode of history.
On the other hand, there is simply something not right and fair to removing the bells from American memorials to victory in Wyoming and South Korea if they would only wind up in a museum glorifying Filipino resistance.
Allowing God to Speak. But an even greater challenge is something religious. There are actually many in this regard, but one is enough for our purpose. Once the bells are installed, can they serve as real reminder for us all to allow God to speak to us? Shall we truly respond to God’s call through the clear voice of the bells and listen attentively to his words? Will the return of these bells become a new launching pad for a new evangelization in the parish, in the diocese, and even in the Church in the Philippines?
That, perhaps, may appear like a tall order, but we can settle for what is more pragmatic. At the minimum, can they become a motivation for people to gather for Sunday Mass in numbers larger than usual? Will they make of us more prayerful than before? Can they serve as reminder for us about God’s presence in our lives and in all that we do, and not to succumb to the two subtle enemies of holiness—new Gnosticism and new Pelagianism—that Pope Francis mentions in his apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate?
The answer to that, I submit, can probably make the return for the bells truly more meaningful to us as a people of faith.*