Down through the centuries, church bells have served a number of purposes: to warn the community of impending dangers, to mark celebratory occasions like weddings and sorrowful ones like death. With death by execution in mind, Dorothy Briggs, O.P., in Medford, Mass., has begun a national ecumenical campaign called “For Whom the Bells Toll.” Her hope is that churches and other places of worship will toll their bells for two minutes at 6 p.m. on the day of an execution anywhere in the country—not only for the person being executed, but also for the victims and their relatives. For churches without bells, the campaign can provide a “For Whom the Bells Toll” banner to be hung near the front of the church.
Sr. Briggs told me that the idea originated with Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines. He asked churches to toll their bells on the day of an execution as a sign of mourning for any state-sponsored death there. The concept was taken up in 1999 by Bishop Walter Sullivan of the Diocese of Richmond, Va., who wrote to all the Catholic churches in his diocese to begin this practice “on the evening of every execution until we bring an end to this inhumane practice.” By calling executions an inhumane practice, Bishop Sullivan is in line with all the U.S. bishops, who have spoken out strongly against capital punishment—as has Pope John Paul II. In a joint statement issued by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore before the date originally set for the execution of Timothy McVeigh, May 16, they said that the death of Mr. McVeigh “is about every man, woman and child in the United States...[because] when the federal government executes Timothy McVeigh, it will do so in our name.” They go on to emphasize, moreover, that use of the death penalty “diminishes us as human beings.”
The tolling of bells is therefore not just a sign of mourning for those put to death; it is also a warning for all of us who are subjected to this form of diminishment caused by state-ordered executions. The title of the campaign is especially appropriate in this context. It comes from “Meditation 17,” by the English poet John Donne: “No man is an island.... Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Each execution is thus a tolling for the diminishment of something in ourselves, a tear in the fabric of our common humanity.
The campaign, which began in September of 2000, has been steadily picking up strength. Over 200 churches in 31 states have agreed to toll their bells each time a condemned prisoner is put to death. A number of non-Catholic churches have also begun to support the effort. Robert M. Moody, for example, the Episcopal bishop of Oklahoma City, is encouraging the churches in his diocese to take part: “This is an opportunity for the churches...to express that life is being taken,” he has written. “To say nothing and let it go on with nothing being said or acted on seems irresponsible.” Like the Catholic bishops, he is calling for a moratorium on executions.
Much of the support for the campaign has come through the efforts of religious women, who have been spreading the word throughout the country. For people who hear the tolling but do not know what it means, a teachable moment presents itself. Sr. Briggs gave the example of a student walking across the campus of St. Catherine College in Kentucky. Hearing the tolling of bells, she asked: “Did one of the sisters die?” The sister of whom she asked the question then explained the meaning. Support for the death penalty has dropped in the past few years, but a majority of Americans—including Catholics—still favor it. All the more reason for church leaders and pastors to join the For Whom the Bells Toll campaign. Sr. Briggs can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.