When people lived ‘bajo la campana’
Every Sunday I receive the grace of patience by simply enduring the lengthy and mindless sermons of priests who think nothing of their parishioners. Excellent homilies are available online, and all that is required is competent delivery, yet many fail even in that. It is unfortunate that I have not been weaned from short, sensible Jesuit homilies and the Benedictine preoccupation with meaningful liturgy. As an historian I can’t help but look beyond rubrics, tracing origins to understand how and why liturgical movements and conventions are the way they are today.
My pet peeves are “commentators” who order everyone, including the presiding priest, when to sit, stand or kneel, and “missalettes” distributed before Mass that distract people like myself who tend to read silently rather than listen to Scripture proclaimed orally. In medieval times, libraries were not the places of silence that we have today; all reading was oral, following the principle of taking mute words from a page with the eyes, and giving it life through the vocal chords. The Word was transmitted by sound, and caught by the ear to touch and transform both mind and heart. Reading then was both informative for the head and formative for the heart. One of the sections I remember from the Confessions of St. Augustine was when he was puzzled to see St. Ambrose reading silently!
Just like “commentators” who tell us when to sit, stand or kneel, there is the ringing of hand-held bells during the elevation of the host that signals the kneeling congregation to look up, then down. I have it on good authority that the so-called Sanctus Bell is optional, its use in earlier times resulting from the priest, with his back to the congregation, reciting the relevant Latin words inaudibly. That required signals of when to sit, stand or kneel. Today, priests face the congregation, the liturgy is in the vernacular, churches have microphones and LCD projectors—yet bell-ringing remains as tradition. It is form, not function.
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Early this week an 800-pound, 19th-century bell named “San Pedro” was returned to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union, by the superintendent of West Point, where it had been kept since it was taken as a souvenir during the Philippine-American War.
Cast in 1883, it was surely blessed or consecrated by a bishop in an elaborate ritual that started with it being washed with holy water (water blessed and mixed with exorcised salt), after which it was anointed with holy oils: the bishop drawing seven crosses outside the bell with the oil of the infirm, and the inside with four crosses drawn with the oil of baptism (or chrism). Incense was then placed underneath to fill the cavity while appropriate scripture and prayers were recited. Finally, the bell was given a name or dedicated to a particular saint. This ritual has led to some confusion about bell blessing being a baptism of sorts.
When put to use the bell became part of community life: It was rung at 6 a.m., 12 noon and 6 p.m., not just to announce the time but also to remind the people to pray.
In the colonial Philippines, bells summoned people to worship, very much like the adhan (or Muslim call to prayer) is made from mosque towers, formerly with a human voice and now with a loudspeaker. Bells tolled to announce a birth, marriage or death by the way these were rung, the number of times, the intervals, etc. Bells signaled emergencies of fire, typhoon or pirate attack. Bells were believed to cleanse the air of evil spirits and drive off storms and lightning.
So integral was the bell in the colonial Philippines that people lived bajo la campana—literally under the bell, but actually within hearing distance of the church bells. During the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War, bells were confiscated by the enemy because they could be used to send signals far and wide in an age before the cell phone, or they could be melted down and made into weapons or bullets.
San Pedro, the bell returned to Bauang this week, must have been one of a pair because the Church is dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul. Its history is engraved on it: Siendo Cura Parroco El M.P.P.F. Mariano Garcia Ano de 1883 / Donacion del Gobernadorcillo D. Mariano Balancio y del teniente D. Hilario Calica A su Yglesia de Bauang (Given to the church of Bauang in 1883 by the Gobernadorcillo Mariano Balancio and Lt. Hilario Calica, when the parish priest was Fr. Mariano Garcia.)
The bell was taken by the enemy in 1899 during the Philippine-American War and was shipped to the United States in 1902. It eventually turned up in the West Point Catholic Chapel through the efforts of Thomas H. Berry, who served in the Philippines and became the 27th superintendent of West Point. Thus, San Pedro is also known as the “Berry Bell.” It remained in storage until it was rediscovered in 1959, when the chapel was renovated.
In the 1980s the bell was installed on a base with this message: “Symbol of peace that even the ravages of war could not destroy.”
To cut a long story short, West Point, upon the request of the parish priest of Saints Peter and Paul in Bauang, has returned the bell to the Philippines. The postscript to this story will hopefully be the return of one or all three of the bells taken from the church of San Lorenzo in Balangiga, Eastern Samar, during the Philippine-American War. The story of those bells is worth another column.
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