“I may be able to speak the languages of human beings and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell.”
–Saint Paul (I Corinthians 13:1)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte demanded the return of the bells of Balangiga from the United States during his State of the Nation Address (Sona) this year. American soldiers had seized the bells as booty way back in 1901 during the Philippine-American War after they retaliated by slaying every Filipino male 10 years old and above for the killing of many of their troops in Samar. Since the presidency of Fidel Ramos, several bids have been mounted for the return of the bells both here and in the US but so far, none have succeeded.
One of the first stories I wrote as a correspondent for Cebu Daily News was about the blessing of carillon bells back in the early 2000s at the parish of the Holy Family in Barangay Maguikay, Mandaue City.
To gain some background, I read part of Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry about bells. The article, among others, enumerates the functions of bells in the life of the church. Uses include calling for heavenly help in the fight against evil spirits and to ward off disasters like floods, storms, and earthquakes.
Most of us in Catholic Philippines would be hard-pressed to miss bells. Sacristans ring small ones many times at Mass. In a high Mass, the bells tinkle at length as ministers walk in the entrance procession and when choir and congregation sing the Gloria. In all eucharistic celebrations, bells are struck or rung as the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to consecrate the host, as he elevates the Body and Blood of Christ, and at other key points in the liturgy.
A traditional tale told to children on Holy Week accounts for the silence of bells between the Gloria of Maundy Thursday and that of Holy Saturday. It is said that the bells themselves remember the passion and death of our Lord so that they fall silent in the interim and fly from every corner of the world to Rome. There they mourn collectively. But as the new fire is blessed and the Exsultet is sung in the Easter vigil, the bells go back to their countries of origin, ready to be rung when the Gloria is sung to herald the season of the Resurrection.
The last time a bell that was looted during the Philippine-American War was sent home on May 2, 2016 during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III.
This was the silver-and-copper San Pedro bell that belongs to the Church of Saint Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union. The bell had been in a chapel in West Point, New York, since 1915. Recovery of the bells resulted from the cooperation of military historians, church authorities, and researchers in the two countries.
A visitor to the Cathedral Museum of Cebu can see some of the island group’s oldest bells up close. They were transported to the museum from old belfries in the towns. In the museum garden, they testify to the endurance of Cebuano faith. Often, the Cebuano hears the pealing of church bells upon the arrival of a carroza bearing the image of the Lord or of a saint at the end of a fiesta procession.
In many churches, bells toll at eight o’clock in the evening in remembrance of the souls of our beloved departed, for whom the church solicits prayers for eternal rest.
Picture yourself at the end of the day in the pilgrim center of Basilica Minore del Santo Niño in downtown Cebu City. Most worshippers would have left after the last Mass of the day.
Two or three supplicants stand by their candles at the lighting space. A few more walk unhurried from the central square. A nun goes up to the sanctuary. An altar boy accompanies her. He carries with one hand a fat, lighted candle in a glass container and with the other, a small bell. She opens the tabernacle, takes out the Sacred Host and lays it inside a pyx.
She holds it aloft as she leaves the sanctuary and descends the altar steps. The boy rings the bell as she walks from outdoor altar to the church. Along the way, the ringing alerts the people who have yet to leave. They go up to the nun and she pauses as they kiss the container that bears the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Take a closer look at the location of Duterte’s call for the return of the Balangiga bells in the full text of his Sona. He made this call after stressing non-interference, equal sovereignty, and warmer relations with China as part of what he calls an independent foreign policy. That does not look like a pure bid to right a historical injury and promote concord and the healing of memories. That looks more like a pretext for Duterte to justify playing deaf to the international community’s criticism of trampled human rights in his ongoing war against drugs, an excuse for him to make a foreign policy pivot to China — the aggressor of fishing communities and destroyer of coral reefs in the West Philippine Sea — appear palatable.
When I was small, the recording of bells on the radios that I and my friends heard while we played outside around sundown in the summer signaled to us that it was time to go home. Most Filipinos know that I refer to the canned bells at the beginning of the six o’clock prayer that we call the Angelus.
This recording of ringing bells may well hold the record for being the most replayed sound of all time as it seems it has not been replaced by radio stations or the paging offices of malls for at least three decades.
Other mediatized bells further evince the ubiquity of these instruments. Fans of Princess Diana remember broadcasters reporting the pealing of bells across England at the news of her passing. Vaticanistas do not forget the ringing of the bells of Saint Peter’s Basilica as white smoke billowed from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel upon the elections of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
If bells were not cast to be stolen at wartime, neither were they made to be used as smokescreens for a state’s friction with another or appeasement of a bellicose one. If bells were cast to be rung in the context of prayer, then the Duterte administration must first listen to the death-knells echoing louder and louder across our isles amid his relentless war on drugs, terrorists, and communists. Of what use are Balangiga bells in their home tower if they will just become indistinct accompaniments to a mounting pile of corpses?