The "baptism" is symbolic in nature, but points to the spiritual power that is bestowed upon the bells.
Bells have played an important role in Church life for centuries, being a primary method of communication for priests and monks in calling the Christian faithful to prayer. In fact, the importance of bells was so great in the Church that an elaborate ceremony was developed to bless the bells, with many people calling it a “baptism.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia gives a brief background to the ceremony.
This name has been given to the blessing of bells, at least in France, since the eleventh century. It is derived from the washing of the bell with holy water by the bishop, before he anoints it with the oil of the infirm without and with chrism within. A fuming censer is then placed under it. The bishop prays that these sacramentals of the Church may, at the sound of the bell, put the demons to flight, protect from storms, and call the faithful to prayer.
Calling the blessing of bells a “baptism” is not an official statement by the Church, but simply a common way of describing the special ceremony that was used for many centuries. Even today bishops use holy water to bless a new bell, though typically it is not as extensive as it once was.
The ceremony highlights the sacramental power of bells. Sacramentals are anything set apart or blessed by the Church for the purpose of sanctifying our lives and leading us to the sacraments. They are sacred signs and provide for us grace (spiritual help) through the intercession of the Church.
Another way to describe sacramentals is that they are extensions of the sacraments. They are not sacraments in themselves, but are related to the seven sacraments and flow from them, ultimately leading us back to them.
It is easy to see how bells are viewed as a sacramental, as they lead us directly to the celebration of the Eucharist, calling us to worship God on Sunday, as well as throughout the week.
The solemn blessing of bells addresses their further purpose of driving away evil spirits and even protecting the Christian faithful from storms.
Here is a brief excerpt from the Roman Ritual that highlights these two spiritual powers bestowed upon bells.
Let the people’s faith and piety wax stronger whenever they hear its melodious peals. At its sound let all evil spirits be driven afar; let thunder and lightning, hail and storm be banished; let the power of your hand put down the evil powers of the air, causing them to tremble at the sound of this bell, and to flee at the sight of the holy cross engraved thereon … when the peal of this bell resounds in the clouds may a legion of angels stand watch over the assembly of your Church, the first-fruits of the faithful, and afford your ever-abiding protection to them in body and spirit.
The next time you hear a church bell, pause for a moment to lift your heart to God. You will then understand how bells can play such an important role in our own spiritual lives, interrupting our busy lives to call us to prayer and leading us back to God.