Toque de ánimas

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Belfry of the parish of Baclayón five months before the devastating 2013 Bohol earthquake

Todos los santos is now upon us. This reminds us of that small commotion amongst Filipino churchly circles that recently erupted concerning bells, after the CBCP “[appealed] for the pealing of church bells at 8:00 pm during the same [forty-day] period in remembrance of the souls of those killed” [1]. This national appeal was preceded by appeals at the diocesan level outside Metro Manila [2], and followed by diocesan instructions on what day to begin the observance, what time to ring the bells, and how long the pealing should be [3].

The critique to this appeal mainly questioned the motivations behind it. Observers noted that by singling out “those killed in the government’s campaign against drugs” [4], even though including in the appositive “all victims of violence and the war in Marawi” [5], as beneficiaries of the exercise, the CBCP politicised its revival of the ancient custom. Strengthening this observation is the fact that the revival was specified only for forty days. An optimist perhaps would say that the CBCP is laying out guidelines for a present issue. Extending it beyond the specified time remains at the hands of individual bishops and parish priests.

Diocesan circulars circulating at the time termed this custom the De profundis bell, the term favoured amongst anglophones. Historically and traditionally, it was called toque de ánimas, or ánimas for short, in the archipelago. The Raccolta in English calls this the signal for the dead, calqued from the Italian segno de’ morti. The sources of the text constituting the catechetical material accompanying the instructions for the Archdiocese of Manila attribute the custom to Urban II [6], who urged Europe to pray for the success of the Crusades at the ringing of the curfew bell [7], called ignitegium or pyritegium in Latin. Other authors, however, affirm that the prayer recited for this end is not the De profundis but the Angelus [8].

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Entrance to the camposanto nuevo of the parish of Baclayón

The Raccolta, on the other hand, pronounces a more believable opinion on the matter, citing Theatine authors expounding the origin of the practice. Quoting Gaetano Maria Magenis, a Theatine priest, the Raccolta appoints Saint Cajetan as the originator of the De profundis bell [9]. Magenis, in turn, quotes Paolo Maria Quarti, another Theatine priest, who first notes that, in the beginning, only the death knell and the lych bell existed; then says that the custom started in Naples around 1534 and quickly spread across Christendom through the efforts of Venerable María Llorença Llong, a Capuchin Poor Clare, whose spiritual director was Saint Cajetan; and finally comments that the custom was approved by Supreme Pontiffs [10].

From Naples, Ambrogio Brandi, a Roman Dominican friar, preacher to Clement VIII, brought the custom to Rome [11]. The De profundis bell was first rung in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in 1609 [12]. The following year, Paul V approved the practice for the whole of Christendom [13]. The practice then became prevalent from the 17th century onward, as can be surmised from the bull Unigeniti Dei Filii of Innocent XI, given 28 January 1688, which granted indulgences to those who, possessing crosses, chaplets, or rosaries which have touched the Holy Places and Sacred Relics of the Holy Land, say the customary prayers at the De profundis bell [14].

Probably because the current Enchiridion Indulgentiarum appoints an indulgence for the De profundis only in the context of the examination of conscience prior to confession [15], the CBCP pastoral letter and the various diocesan circulars make no mention of the indulgences attached to this revived exercise of piety and charity. (In an untrusting mind, this would solidify the suspicion that the revival is not spiritually motivated because of the scanty mention of its spiritual fruits.)

The Raccolta, however, being the precursor to the Enchiridion, catalogues the indulgences for prayers for the dead. On 9 July 1568, with Quod a Nobis, Saint Pius V granted 100 days to those who pray the Officium Defunctorum on the days specified by the rubrics; and on 8 April 1571, with Superni omnipotentis, 50 days to those who recite the same Office as a devotional exercise [16]. But it would be Clement XII, with the bull Coelestes Ecclesiae thesauros, given 14 August 1736, who would grant 100 days of indulgence to anyone who recites kneeling the De profundis with Requiem aeternam at the ringing of the De profundis bell, without the condition of possessing any sacramentals [17]. Later popes would confirm and expand the concessions.

Coelestes Ecclesiae thesauros LTCoelestes Ecclesiae thesauros EN

In the Spanish tradition, there are three tolls appointed for the dead: the ánimas, the agonía, and the dobles. The toque de ánimas is rung every evening, typically one hour after the toque de oración (the toll calling the faithful to pray the evening Angelus) to remind the faithful to pray for the dead. The toque de agonía is rung on the day of a faithful’s death shortly after the parish is notified of the decease. The toque de dobles is rung on the day of funeral, the complexity of which is regulated by the arancel approved by the bishop.

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Ringing the bells of the Co-Cathedral of the Epiphany of the Lord of the Archdiocese of Lingayén-Dagupan in Lingayén, Pangasinán

Bellringing in Catholic Philippines is near extinction. In Metro Manila, as in many urban centres, it is rare to hear bells tolled before Mass. Belfries are now just mere architectonic decorations in the parish ground. Some new churches sport a bell-gable, the so-called espadaña in Filipino church architecture parlance, again for decoration. A carillon culture is kept in some places of Catholic worship, but this is an infinitesimally feeble substitute for the supreme tradition of bellringing. Ringing the ánimas probably existed in different customs throughout the archipelago. By tradition, it involves the bourdon bell, the heaviest and biggest bell in a belfry. In a three-bell church, the typical pattern is this: three strokes to the bourdon bell; three strokes to the medium bell; simultaneous three strokes to the bourdon and medium bells; finally, two strokes to the small bell.

We know that, somewhere out there, there are still faithful sextons keeping the tradition from becoming an atrophied footnote to Filipino Catholic life, but their species is dying. Bells formed an integral part of life in the Philippines until changing times, bolstered by the erosion of Catholic identity vis-à-vis the consignment of Catholic symbols into spaces enclosed by alienating glass boxes, cast the principle of bajo el son de las campanas into some sort of postcolonial self-pity and fashionable embarrassment. For us to clamour with interior decency and supreme dignity for the return of our bells hostaged by colonists as war trophies, we must at least harbour a cause loftier than the belief that we have greater claim to the right to enthrone our bells on pedestals and barricade them inside church museums.

Let us, therefore, pray that many more priests take advantage of this “revival” to actually keep the practice beyond the specified forty-day period.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.


[1] Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Pastoral Letter Lord, heal our land (12 September 2017) towards the end, no. 2: CBCP Online (http://cbcpwebsite.com/Resources/CBCP%20Pastoral%20-%20Lord%20Heal%20Our%20Land.pdf) accessed 29 September 2017.
[2] Bencyrus Ellorin, For whom the bell tolls (31 August 2017): Mindanao Gold Star Daily (http://mindanaogoldstardaily.com/for-whom-the-bell-tolls/) accessed 29 September 2017. Cf. Luis Antonio Card. H. R. C. Tagle, Letter on tolling of bells (8 September 2017). Cf. CBCP Laiko, Letter from Cardinal Tagle on tolling of bells (11 September 2017): CBCP Episcopal Commission on the Laity (http://www.cbcplaiko.org/2017/09/11/tolling-of-bells/) accessed 29 September 2017.
[3] Roman Catholic Diocese of Parañaque, Circular No. 2017-092 (18 September 2017): DOP (http://dioceseofparanaque.org/?p=5481) accessed 29 September 2017.
[4] Pastoral Letter Lord, heal our land, no. 1.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The De Profundis bell (4 March 2009): Catholic Eye Candy (https://cathcandy.wordpress.com/2009/03/04/the-de-profundis-bell/) accessed 29 September 2017.
[7] Luc Rombouts, Singing bronze: a history of carillon music, part 1, ch. 2: (ed. Leuven 2010), p. 36.
[8] Ibid. Cf. Francesco Girolamo Cancellieri, Descrizione delle nuove campane capitoline, part 1, ch. 9: Le due campane di Campidoglio (ed. Rome 1806), p. 27.
[9] Gaetano Maria Magenis, Vita di S. Gaetano Tiene, part 2, ch. 4, no. 465: (ed. Zatta 1776), p. 201.
[10] Paolo Maria Quarti, De Benedictionibus, tit. 2, sect. 12, dub. 9, no. 190: Biga aetherea (ed. Buseo 1772) pp. 142–143. Cf. Andreas Fett, Psalmus De profundis, diss. 6: (ed. Krauss 1735), p. 75.
[11] Raccolta (ed. Rome 1841), p. 486.
[12] Pio Tommaso Masetti, Notizie istoriche del tempio di S. M. sopra Minerva (ed. Rome 1855), p. 23.
[13] Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt, ch. 1: (ed. Oxford 2002), p. 20.
[14] Raccolta (ed. Rome 1841), p. 487.
[15] EI 1999, conc. 9, 2°
[16] Raccolta (ed. Rome 1841), p. 485.
[17] Ibid., p. 487.
[18] Ibid.

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