Tolling Bells for Justice

“The smaller bell from Slimnic's fortified church” by Horia Varlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“The smaller bell from Slimnic’s fortified church” by Horia Varlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The first time I heard a death knell was when I was a student at Saint John’s, Collegeville. I have a vivid memory of the bell’s solemn toll. I remember wondering why it was so slow and being clearly distinct from the familiar calls to prayer. I was sitting by the lake with a friend who knew better. “What’s going on?” I asked. “A monk has passed away” she said. A stillness and silence fell upon us. It did not seem appropriate to say anything else. We remained still and listened respectfully until the bell finished its song.

This memory came to me last week as I read about Cardinal Tagle’s latest challenge to the Filipino president’s war on drugs. reports that in response to president Duterte’s on-going systematic extrajudicial killing of suspected drug users and dealers, Cardinal Tagle has asked that the Filipino church revive the tradition of tolling their church bells to remember and pray for victims and their families. He made this request in a letter issued on the feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, urging pastors to toll their church bells for five minutes every evening beginning on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

Imagine an entire city of bells, ringing once every five seconds, each solemn chime as an offer of consolation for every gun shot, a symbol of dignity accorded to every life lost to injustice. If doctrine is prose and liturgy is poetry, then this must be poetic justice performed according to the liturgical imagination.

Could a practice similar to what Cardinal Tagle proposed be done in the U.S.? How powerful would it be if a bell tolled for every young life lost to gun violence in Chicago!


  1. I just want to say that your opening paragraph is amazing in its power and simplicity.

    I would love to see a return of the bells throughout the land as a call to God. There’s something comforting in a regular chiming of bells for the marking of chronological time. When a bell is then used to mark a death or toll for justice–kairos breaks into our lives and we pause.

  2. Hi Audrey, I love your idea about doing this in Chicago. In fact, I like it so much, I just forwarded your post on to Cardinal Cupich. I’m sure he gets all sorts of unsolicited mail, but it’s a brilliant idea, so we’ll see …

  3. Slightly off-topic, but I remember reading in a church bulletin once that the (new to that particular parish) pastor was having the carillon programmed to toll the bell every night at 8pm because it was a tradition for churches with a parish cemetery to toll the bell each night in memory of all those who were interred there. Said it was the “De Profundis Bell”. Anyone else ever hear of this practice? That’s the only time I’ve ever run across it.

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