Using Bells in Liturgy

I like Anthony de Mello’s story of the guru’s cat in his book “Song of the Bird”
When the guru sat down to worship each evening the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshippers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship.
Long after the guru died the cat continued to be tied during worship. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be dully tied during evening worship.
Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the essential role of a cat in all properly conducted worship. (de Mello, 1982, Song of the Bird, p.79).

In liturgy we sometimes continue to do certain things long after the reason for their inclusion in worship has passed. It may take an outsider asking questions about a peculiarly Catholic ritual or practice to make us stop to consider its purpose.

The ringing of bells during Mass, for example. Although the Roman Missal that has been in use since 1969 actually dropped the compulsory ringing of bells, some parishes continue the practice at the consecration.

It is interesting to look at 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 present could not see or hear what was happening and very often were engaged in their own private prayer.

Because of an over-emphasis on the real presence in the consecrated elements and a misplaced sense of their own unworthiness, people very seldom went forward for communion. Instead they received the grace of the sacrament by looking upon the consecrated bread and wine. In fact, this period is sometimes called the era of “the gaze that saves”.

As a result, the priest began to raise the chalice and host above his head so that they could be more easily seen by all present. In fact there is an account from this time of people in rural England crying out to the priest: “Higher, Sir John, higher, raise it a little higher!” Also the practice of ringing a bell was introduced to alert the people to the fact that the holy moment of the consecration and elevation 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. To highlight just one section by the ringing of bells affects the unity and continuity of this great prayer. It might even give the impression that the other parts of the Eucharistic Prayer are just padding.

If we want to continue ringing bells, which is after all part of our “bells and smells” tradition, perhaps it would be more appropriate to use them during the highpoints of our participation in liturgy. For example, bells could be rung to accompany the singing of the memorial acclamation and the great Amen.

Do we have other cats tied up in the corner during our properly-conducted parish liturgies?


Elizabeth Harrington