Church bells are commonplace today, but for the first 400 years of the church there was only silence. Paulinus of Nola first introduced the bells at a church in the year 400. In 604 Pope Sabinianus officially sanctioned the usage of bells, and by early in the Middle Ages ringing could be heard throughout northern Europe.

Although the primary purpose of the bells has traditionally been to alert Catholics in a particular area that Mass time is nearing, they can be heard throughout the day at many churches. Some might be three times, but some others might ring them hourly.

Bells are also consecrated in a solemn function, known as the “baptism of the bell.” The tradition is thought to date to the 8th century but some believe it started earlier. At one time, the bells were actually dipped into baptismal water, while the presiding priest or bishop pronounced the words used at baptism.

That particular practice was condemned in 789 but washing the bell with specially blessed water and even anointing them with oil had already woven itself into the fabric of the ceremony.

In modern church culture, the water used to “baptize” the bell must be blessed by a bishop, even if he does not actually bless the bell. However, if a priest is to bless a bell, he must have a special faculty granted by the Vatican.

A prayer is read before the bell is washed with the holy water. After it has been washed, the bell is anointed on the outside with the oil of the sick by the bishop or presiding priest as he recites a prayer.

The bell is anointed outside seven times and inside four times all while saying a prayer that in part asks that “whoever assembles at its sound may be free from all temptations of the enemy, and ever follow the teaching of the Catholic faith.”

In what many experts find no spiritual base, the ceremony concludes with the chanting of a passage from St. Luke’s Gospel where the Lord was entertained by Martha and Mary.

So when you hear that ringing in your ears, you are likely hearing a tradition dating to the 5th century.