Church bells are used for many different purposes. As a call to prayer, some Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic churches ring their bells three times a day – at 6 AM, Noon and 6 PM – to summon the faithful to recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Angelus. The only time the bells are not rung out is from Holy Thursday through the Easter Vigil. Church bells are also rung to signal the start of Mass or a worship service. Traditionally, there are three times when a bell could be rung in connection to a death: the “Passing Bell” to warn of an impending death, the “Death Knell” upon the death of a person and the “Funeral Toll” as the funeral procession approaches the church. Sanctus Bells are special bells hung near the peak of the roof outside or above the entrance to the sanctuary inside which are rung at the singing of the Sanctus and at the elevation of the bread and wine to indicate to those not present that the moment of consecration has arrived. Within the church, this function is often performed by altar bells which are usually a small set of handbells.
According to tradition, the ringing of church bells is believed to drive out demons and other unclean spirits. Because of this, bells are often blessed before they’re hung. In the Roman Catholic Church, bells are blessed using the Baptism of Bells. In this ritual, the bells are washed inside and out with holy water by the bishop. They are then anointed on the outside with the oil of the infirm and on the inside with chrism. A fuming thurible is then placed inside the bells as the bishop prays over the bell.
Bells were first introduced into the Christian Church by St. Paulinus of Nola in AD 400. Their use was officially sanctioned in AD 604 by Pope Sabinian. Bells first became common in northern Europe due to Celtic influence, especially from Irish missionaries. Before bells were introduced, Greek monasteries would strike a semantron, or flat metal plate, to announce services.