Question time by Fr John Flader
In my daughter’s school they say the Angelus every day at noon. I was not familiar with the prayer but am very happy to know that they say it. My mother remembers saying it when the parish bells were rung at 6pm each day. What is the origin of this prayer and the bells?
The Angelus is in fact a traditional prayer, going back almost 800 years.
For those unfamiliar with it, the name comes from its first word in Latin, Angelus, meaning angel. The prayer commemorates the archangel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary of her vocation to be the mother of God and her response.
It consists of three verses and responses each followed by a Hail Mary, with a longer prayer at the end. The verses and responses are:
V. The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,
R. And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.
V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
R. Be it done unto me according to thy Word.
V. And the Word was made flesh.
R. And dwelt amongst us.
The Angelus has its origin in the 13th century in the recitation of three Hail Marys by the lay faithful when the evening bell was rung in the monasteries to announce the praying of Night Prayer, or Compline.
A decree of the Franciscan General Chapter in 1263 or 1269, at the time of St Bonaventure, directed preachers to encourage the faithful to say three Hail Marys at the time of the Compline bell.
It was believed that it was at this hour that the angel appeared to Our Lady.
It was not long before the custom grew up of ringing a bell also in the morning and saying the same prayers. This coincided with the monks saying the office of Prime.
The earliest mention of this custom seems to be in a chronicle of the city of Parma in 1318, where the town bell, not that of the monastery, was rung.
The local bishop exhorted the people to say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys for the preservation of peace, and the bell became known as the “peace bell”.
The custom of the morning prayers soon became popular all over Europe and England.
The midday Angelus with a ringing of the bell was the last to be introduced. It seems to have appeared first in the 14th century and was also known as a peace bell.
King Louis XI of France commended the custom in 1475 for the cause of peace. The midday prayers were often associated with the veneration of the Passion of Christ, and so at first the bell was rung only on Fridays, although it gradually spread to the other days of the week.
In some places, including England and Germany at the beginning of the 16th century, longer prayers commemorating the Passion were to be said in addition to the three Hail Marys.
The recitation of the verses and responses that we say today, although without the final prayer, seems to have begun in the 16th century. An Italian catechism printed in Venice in 1560 has these verses.
An English manuscript of 1576 suggests that the Resurrection should be commemorated in the morning, the Passion at noon and the Incarnation in the evening.
The Angelus can be said in the morning, usually around 6am, at noon and at 6pm.
It is usually said standing and some people have the custom of genuflecting or bowing at the words “And the Word became flesh.”
In summary, the Angelus is a beautiful prayer honouring Our Lady’s response to the angel which brought about the Incarnation of Christ. The more it is said the better.