Using Bells in Liturgy


I have received requests to follow up my recent column on the ‘smells’ of Mass with one about ‘bells’.

The current Missal, which has been in use since 1969, dropped the compulsory ringing of bells which had been a feature of the Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal mentions ringing bells only once:
“A little before the Consecration, when appropriate, a server rings
a bell as asignal to the faithful. According to local custom, the
server also rings the bell as the priest shows the host and then the
chalice.” (#150)

To understand the reason for the change from bells being mandated to being optional, it is helpful to examine why the ringing of bells was originally introduced into the Mass.

By the early middle ages, the priest celebrated Mass silently in Latin with his back to the people. Those at Mass could not see or hear what was happening and very often were engaged in their own private prayer.

Because of a number of factors which had developed over time, people only rarely received communion. They believed that they still received the grace of the sacrament by looking upon the consecrated bread and wine.

Priests began to raise the chalice and host above their head so that they could be more easily seen by all present. So that people engrossed in their own prayers and meditation would not miss the consecration and elevation, the practice of ringing a bell was introduced to alert the people to the fact that this holy moment was about to occur.

Now that the Mass is celebrated in such a way that people can see, hear and understand what is happening at the altar, the need to attract their attention by ringing a bell no longer exists.

In fact, to ring bells may give the wrong impression of the Eucharistic Prayer. The institution narrative (the story of Christ’s words and actions at the Last Supper) is one part of the whole prayer of thanksgiving. It belongs with the praise of God’s wonderful saving deeds, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the memorial of Jesus’ death and resurrection and our joining in Christ’s offering.

Theologians no longer talk about a ‘moment’ of consecration; rather the whole of this great prayer is consecratory. To highlight just one section by the ringing of bells affects the unity and continuity of the Eucharistic Prayer.

If we want to continue the ‘bells’ aspect of the Catholic ‘bells and smells’ tradition, it is more appropriate to use them to reinforce the highpoints of our participation in liturgy, for example, to accompany the singing of the memorial acclamation or the great ‘Amen’, rather than to continue ringing them for reasons which no longer exist.

What about the other sort of church bells – those in church belfries or towers? The tradition of ringing bells to call people to worship began in the 6th century. Church bells were also used to announce the death of a parishioner and to call people to prayer at times of the ‘Angelus’.

The Sacramentary calls for the ringing of church bells twice only – during the Gloria on Holy Thursday and again at the Easter Vigil. Small handbells are usually rung at these times, but the ringing of outdoor bells serves to alert the whole neighbourhood to these sacred times and events.

Elizabeth Harrington