For centuries, church bells have summoned, celebrated, reminded and commemorated. Originally, they served communities as a tool of mass communication for both spiritual and secular matters. Today, though the onset of modern mass communication like radio, television and the internet has decreased the breadth of church bells' communicative role, they nevertheless retain much of their original meaning.
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In the Middle Ages, the typical European town was built around its church. The church bells announced certain community events and called the townspeople to prayer and Mass. In Medieval churches, different rings and bells indicated feast days, the type of church service and if a sermon would be preached. According to Bishop Michael Pfeifer of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo, Texas, bells were meant to symbolise God's voice calling the people to prayer, to church services and to Christ.
Several churches continue to ring their bells as calls to prayer and mass. The Cathedral Church of the Sacred Heart in San Angelo rings its bells at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. for the Angelus prayer or Hail Mary. Several churches signal the Angelus prayer with three sets of three chimes. Additionally, churches often ring bells at the start of church services. The manner of ringing varies from church to church, though generally the bells start ringing 15 minutes before the service begins. In Rome, churches continue to announce fast days by ringing for 15 minutes the evening before.
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Bishop Pfeifer, when he worked in Oaxaca, Mexico, recalls that the bells rang every hour to mark the time. Church bells are most often used as timekeepers. They ring on the hour, with some marking the half-hour and some even the quarter-hour. To mark the hour, the bells ring according to the hour's number. For example, 11 rings would signify 11 o'clock. To mark the half-hour and quarter-hour, bells usually chime once.
Bells are also used to announce weddings or funerals. The death knell is tolled at the beginning of a funeral service. The toll is much slower than normal ringing, and occurs nine times if a man has died and six times if a woman has died. Sometimes the age of the deceased is tolled out. For example, if the deceased was 65, the bell would toll either 65 times or six times with a pause and then five times. At a wedding, the exact manner of ringing is extremely variable, though always vigorous and lively and at the conclusion of the ceremony.
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The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches have many more complex bell rings. For example, ringing for an all-night vigil proceeds as follows: A single bell rings at the beginning of the service, followed by all bells rang three times. At the first reading, all bells ring twice and at the second reading, all bells ring once. At the Magnificat, a single bell rings nine times, and when the service concludes, all bells ring out three times.