ROME, 25 NOV. 25 2003 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of
liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: I serve as a member to the RCIA team in our parish and recently it was
asked, Why don't they ring the bells anymore at Mass? The answer that was
given by the DRE was something I have never heard before. It was stated
that there is not one magical moment, and that the bread and wine
gradually become the Body and Blood of Christ through all the prayers at
Mass. Have you ever heard of this? — S.G., Youngstown, Ohio
A: First, there is no reason why a bell should not be rung at the
consecration. This is still the practice at papal Masses and is explicitly
foreseen in the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 150,
which states: "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."
As to the theological hypothesis of a gradual consecration given by the
director of religious education: To put it mildly, it would appear to
overstate the conclusions of certain valuable contributions to eucharistic
theology which have sought to emphasize the advantage of considering the
Eucharistic Prayer in its entirety, rather than limiting one's attention
to the formula of consecration, in order to achieve a fuller and richer
concept of the eucharistic mystery.
Concentration on the moment of consecration tends to privilege above all
the aspect of the Real Presence, while taking the entire Eucharistic
Prayer into account brings out more fully other aspects such as the
Eucharist as memorial of Christ's sacrifice, his resurrection and
ascension, the role of the Holy Spirit, the aspect of mediation, its role
in building up the Church, etc. In many ways this is the procedure used by
the Holy Father in his recent encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia."
The use of this method, however, in no way contradicts traditional
Catholic theology as to a specific moment in which the bread and wine are
changed into Christ's body and blood at the consecration. The concept of a
gradual transformation from bread to Eucharist is no more sustainable than
the idea of a nonhuman embryo becoming an almost human, or a not quite
human, fetus, gradually transforming itself into a human being. There can
be no stages in the eucharistic mystery: It is either bread or it is
Christ, there is nothing in between.
This truth is also indicated by the rubrics of the Mass which explicitly
state that the priest genuflect in adoration after consecrating the bread,
and again after the consecration of the wine. This rubric would be
senseless, not to say idolatrous, if Christ were not already fully present
from that moment. ZE03112520
* * *
Follow-up: Gradual Consecration? [from 12-9-03]
Our response on the possibility of a "gradual consecration" (see Nov. 25)
generated some very illuminating and informative correspondence. As our
readers will appreciate, the brief nature of this column precludes my
entrance into the more arcane aspects of eucharistic or sacramental
theology, but I will do my best to clear up any doubts while hoping not to
contribute to further confusion.
A writer from St. Louis, Missouri, while expressing overall appreciation
for the response found the following expression problematic: "the concept
of a gradual transformation from bread to Eucharist is no more sustainable
than the idea of a nonhuman embryo becoming an almost human, or a not
quite human, fetus, gradually transforming itself into a human being.
There can be no stages in the eucharistic mystery: It is either bread or
it is Christ, there is nothing in between." ....
My intention in this statement was to draw an analogy between the
arguments of pro-abortion writers who sustain that the embryo is not human
and becomes so later, and of those who propose a gradual or progressive
consecration in which bread and wine gradually become Christ's body and
My point was that neither argument held up. I thought that the point was
obvious, but the very fact that a very perceptive reader did not see it
proves that I was not as clear as I should have been.
Another source of confusion seems to be the oft-repeated statement that in
a way the entire Eucharistic Prayer is somehow consecratory and that this
is not limited to the essential words of the sacramental rite "This is my
body" and "This is (the cup of) my blood."
It is suggested that this thesis is proved by the fact that the Catholic
Church recognizes the validity of certain ancient eucharistic prayers,
such as that of Addai and Mari, still in use in some Middle Eastern
churches, which does not contain an explicit formula of consecration.
Here we touch upon some very difficult questions regarding the power of
the Church to determine the essential elements of the sacraments,
questions which are in some cases not yet fully resolved.
From the point of view of settled Catholic doctrine, if by consecration we
mean the moments in which the bread ceases to be bread and the wine ceases
to be wine and becomes the body/blood, soul and divinity of Christ, then
these moments are the words: "This is my body" and "This is (the cup of)
my blood" (see the Catechism, Nos. 1353, 1376 and 1377).
This idea does not contradict the concept that the entire Eucharistic
Prayer is somehow consecratory. But we [are] asking a different question
which goes beyond the sacramental Real Presence and involves the full
richness of the eucharistic mystery taken in its entirety as memorial,
sacrifice, thanksgiving, mediation, communion, etc.
Once more the Catechism enlightens us as it deals with the institution
narrative within the context of the entire Eucharistic Prayer and indeed
of the celebration as a whole (Nos. 1348-1355).
The idea of the Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory is also an important
element in some disputed questions such as if it is possible for a priest
to consecrate using just the essential words outside the context of the
Mass. Some theologians provide solid and persuasive arguments against this
possibility, but the question has not been definitively settled by the
While the Church has defined what is essential for the consecration in her
own rites she does not thereby declare that this is the only possibility.
And thus she has recognized the validity of those very rare exceptions of
ancient eucharistic prayers that consecrate in another way and in which it
is not possible to determine a precise moment.
On a less theological plane a correspondent from Los Angeles sent me a
reply on ringing bells from the Secretariat for Liturgy of the U.S.
bishops' conference asking if this response should be considered more
"official" than mine:
"The ringing of bells during the eucharistic prayer is no longer required
by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. In a day when the people
could neither see nor hear what the priest was doing, bells provided a
'signal' that something important was about to happen. This need is no
longer present. The Order of Mass shows a keen appreciation for the
eucharistic prayer as the one 'great prayer' of priest and people. It is
indeed the entire eucharistic prayer which is consecratory. In order to
foster an appreciation of this seamless character of the eucharistic
prayer, the ringing of bells is optional."
Almost any reply to liturgical questions could be considered more official
than mine as I make no pretensions to authority beyond that of the
official documents I cite.
Regarding the above reply I think that there is a difference of emphasis,
perhaps conditioned by the way in which the original question was framed.
Thus whoever replied on behalf of the secretariat emphasized the
non-obligatory character of ringing a bell during the consecration; I
stressed the fact that it was still permitted.
Whether omitting the bell for the institution narrative fosters an
appreciation of the seamless character of the Eucharistic Prayer is a
debatable point. From a pastoral standpoint it could aid in strengthening
faith in the Real Presence which several surveys have shown to be in
jeopardy among many Catholics.
Certainly, as stated above, the eucharistic mystery is far greater than
the Real Presence, but if this aspect is undermined it is futile to hope
to foster the others…. ZE03120922