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On the Use of Altar Bells

A member of an online Filipino Catholic group asked me: “Father, why is it that the altar servers ring the bells longer during Consecration, than before communion?” 

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DEFINITION

The Altar Bell or Sanctus Bell is typically a small hand-held bell or set of bells used primarily during the Eucharistic celebrations of the Roman Catholic Church in order to create a joyful noise to the Lord and proclaim the mystery of the Eucharist. Psalm 98:4 describes:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous songs and sing praises!” 


SHORT HISTORY OF THE ALTAR BELLS 

The practical use of the big bells at the belfry is to call the attention of the faithful before the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and other sacraments. It is also used in times of fire, storms and any other disasters to warn the people. Generally, important liturgical celebrations of the Catholic Church are heralded by the sound of the bells. St. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, introduced the bells as a means to summon monks to prayer in the fifth century. 

Likewise, the altar bells or sanctus bells, though a lot smaller, have the basic function of solemnly calling the attention of the faithful during the Eucharistic celebration. Its use may have started in the 13th century. However, it was not mentioned in the original 1570 Roman Missal of Pope Pius V (the first typical edition of the Latin mass). Furthermore, it was not introduced in the Pontifical Masses until the time of Pope John Paul II though it has been widely used in many parishes. 

Another practical use of the altar bells may have originated in the very architecture of the old Church. Before, there was a certain degree of physical separation between the faithful and presider in the sanctuary. There were even communion rails before the Second Vatican Council. In some cases, the altar was totally concealed from the faithful and only the sound of the bells could give a hint that the priest has reached consecration. 

Centuries after, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) formally mandated the use of altar bells during the celebration of the mass. Thus, bells became a requirement for the first time since it has been written in the official rubrics (instructions). The altar bells were traditionally used during the Sanctus, during consecration and before Communion. 


FROM THE INSTRUCTIONS 

I. G.I.R.M. of the 2005 ROMAN MISSAL 
According to the General Instruction on the Roman Misssal (2005), no. 150: 

A little before the Consecration, when appropriate, a server rings a bell as a signal to the faithful. According to local custom, the server also rings the bell as the priest shows the host and then the chalice.” 

Let us analyze such provision: 

1. “A little before the Consecration” – there is no mention of the specific time or part of the mass when the bells should be rung. All it provides is that it is “a little before the Consecration”. We shall supply such lack of particularity by referring to the traditional and contemporary use of the altar bells: 

a. Traditional: The bells are rung during the Sanctus. Hence, altar bells are also called Sanctus Bells. 

b. Contemporary: The bells are rung during the Epiclesis [when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit during consecration while he stretches out his hands over the host and the chalice.] 

NOTE: Ringing the bell at both the Sanctus and the Epiclesis was a common practice in the first half of the twentieth century. 


2. “when appropriate” – It denotes the exercise of prudence on the part of the priest to instruct the altar server when to ring the bells based on the local custom. It denotes a non-obligatory use of the bells. 


3. “According to local custom, the server also rings the bell as the priest shows the host and then the chalice.” – Likewise, ringing the bell during the consecration must be in accordance to the local custom. 


II. RUBRICS of the 1962 ROMAN MISSAL 

- The 1962 Roman Missal [used for the extraordinary form of the Mass (Tridentine)] has specific provisions on the use of the altar bells which the GIRM of the 2005 Roman Missal (ordinary form of the Mass) does not provide. 

Note: Celebrant = priest presider 
          Minister = altar server 

"When he [priest] says Sanctus. with his hands joined before his breast, he continues, inclined and in an ordinary voice, the minister ringing in the meantime a small bell." (Source: Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, VII, 8 )


- There is a provision of ringing the altar bells during the Sanctus. Hence, they are called sanctus bells.


When the consecrated Host has been replaced upon the Corporal, he genuflects and venerates it. If there is another vessel of Hosts, he covers it with a Paten or Pall, as above. The minister signals the faithful a little before the Consecration with a ring of a small bell. Then, when the celebrant elevates the host, the minister elevates with his left hand the posterior fringes of the Chasuble, so it may not hinder the celebrant in raising his arms, (which is also done during the elevation of the Chalice), and his right hand rings the small bells three times at each elevation, or continuously until the celebrant replaces the host upon the corporal. The minister does the same a little bit later, at the elevation of the chalice.” (Source: Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, VIII, 6 ) 

- The specific time of “a little before the consecration” was not specified either .

- However, the manner of ringing the altar bell during Consecration itself was discussed. It can be three times each elevation or continuous until the priest finishes the elevation. 


Furthermore, in another provision, it is stated that: 

If there are some to receive holy communion during the Mass, the minister signals them a little beforehand with the ring of the bell." (Source: Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, X, 6 ) 


CONCLUSION 

The local custom is usually the practices of the pre-Vatican II mass that was carried over after the 1969 promulgation of the so-called Novus Ordo, the ordinary form of the mass. The Church gives importance to such customs. It must be noted that the use of altar bells is obligatory for the Tridentine (Latin) Mass but optional in the Novus Ordo Missae

Although, the practical use of the altar bells has been diminished over time and can actually be omitted, it can still serve another purpose as an extra aid to call attention at the moment of the consecration, especially for those who become out-of-focus, and it is an effective catechetical tool for children and adults alike. A long-standing custom should not just be swept away unless more is to be gained by dropping it than retaining it. 

The longer ringing of bells emphasizes the unfolding mystery when the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ as bells joyfully yet solemnly reverberates to get the attention of the faithful. The duration of the bell depends on the method used: it can be three times with interval or continuous ringing until the elevation is finished. It is important to consider the rhythm in ringing the bells in order to add solemnity and harmony to the celebration. 

The shorter ringing of bells a little before communion usually after the presider has received the Body and Blood of Christ) signals that the faithful may already receive Holy Communion. 


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Sources: 
Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae (1962) 
General Instructions of the Roman Missal (2005) 
Herrera, Matthew D., Sanctus Bells: Their History and Use in the Catholic Church, San Luis Obispo: Tixlini Scriptorium, 2004. 


4 comments:

  1. Intellectual honesty would seem to require explaining why, in fact, bells have not been used with the Novus Ordo. These bells were instituted because the faithful could not be counted upon to be paying close attention to the progress of the Mass. They rather thought that they could say private prayers like the rosary during Mass, so bells were rung to alert them to the upcoming consecration of the bread and wine.

    In the Novus Ordo, full, active, and conscious participation is a given for all the faithful. They can both see and hear the priest and know full well when the consecration is approaching and when it actually occurs. Thus, no need for "warning" bells. Someone at the Vatican decided that some mention might be made of a ringing of a bell at each consecration, but only if it is "appropriate" and part of local custom. A number of younger clergy, no doubt not fully cognizant of their original purpose, think they add a pretty sound to the Mass and so are trying to make it a parish custom.

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  3. Happy to be part of the younger clergy who has the server ring the bells appropriately at Mass. One reason is that the bells are a happy memory for the older parishioners. It also engages the ears and mind of the un-catechized so that they know to look up, Jesus, in His fullness, is making himself Sacramentally and truly present up here on the altar. I am fully aware of the original use of the bells. There doesn't seem to be a good enought reason to discontinue their use.

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  4. @Fr. Jack Feehily

    You're simply mistaken when you state that "bells have not been used with the Novus Ordo." Not only are they allowed during the celebration of the OF Mass, it's not uncommon to see them being used -- particularly it seems at Masses celebrated by priests over 70 and under 40 it would seem.

    You're also wrong about the primary reason behind the existence of sanctus bells. The author of this blog got the facts straight -- you did not. For your edification you might want to read my updated monograph on the subject which has been noted in this blog at www.SmellsBells.com

    Sincerely in Christ;

    Matthew

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