Bells at the Consecration

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Bells at the Consecration

ROME, 23 AUG. 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

A: The ringing of bells at the elevation is now omitted during the consecration; the reason given is that since the Mass is now said in the language of the parishioners, they should be aware of what is happening and are not in need of bells to tell them. Does not the ringing of bells at the elevation draw attention to the great event that has occurred on the altar? — E.H., Williamsford, Ontario

Q: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal refers to bell ringing in 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."

The text makes it clear that ringing a bell at the consecration is an option, not an obligation.

Since the GIRM's presumption is that Mass is celebrated in the local tongue, the use of the vernacular, in itself, cannot be used as a reason for the abolition of the bell ringing. There may be other good reasons, but they should be weighed carefully. A long-standing custom should not just be swept away unless more is to be gained by dropping it than retaining it.

The birth of the custom of a signal bell at the consecration, probably during the 13th century, had more to do with the recitation of the canon in a low voice than to the language of the Mass as such.

It may also have been inspired by changes in church architecture in which the people were more physically separated from the altar by the choir — and in some cases a significant number of faithful were impeded from seeing the altar during Mass. Thus the use of the bell became necessary.

Some centuries later the bell was also rung at other moments such as the Sanctus and before Communion.

Certainly the practical reasons for ringing the bell have all but disappeared. Yet, it can still serve a purpose as an extra aid to call attention to the moment of the consecration, as a jolt to reawaken wandering minds and a useful catechetical tool for children and adults alike.

In an age when people are ever more in thrall to audiovisual means of communication, and less attentive to abstract discourse, it seem strange that we set about removing those very means that, as well as forming part of our tradition, could prove most effective in transmitting a message of faith. A similar argument could also be made regarding the decline in practices such as the use of incense during Mass.

The Holy See has maintained the practice of ringing the bell at the consecration in St. Peter's Basilica, although it has an excellent sound system. I also had the experience of a parish that restored the use of the signal bell after many years without it. Not only were there no complaints but the general reaction was very positive from all age groups. ZE05082321

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Follow-up: Bells at the Consecration [09-06-2005]

A reader from Crawfordsville, Indiana, has added some very informative comments to our piece on the use of bells during Mass (Aug. 23).

He writes: "Apropos your fine response to the question of ringing bells at the consecration, it may interest you to know that the issue is perhaps a bit more complicated than you suggest. Father Adrian Fortescue, so much lionized by liturgical traditionalists for his rubrical manual of the old rite, [...] was not a fan of bells, and points out in his 'History of the Roman Mass' that there was much variation in Europe about when they were rung. He says that traditionally bells were never rung at St. Peter's in Rome at the consecration, where the papal liturgy continued right through the reforms to be an odd combination of extreme Baroque elaboration and pre-medieval archaism. I suspect that after the papal liturgy was essentially abolished by Paul VI, and replaced with the ordinary Mass the Pope now celebrates, bells were later restored on the false assumption that they had been used, and there were not enough clerics left in the papal household who remembered the old tradition to set people straight."

Certainly Dr. Fortescue (1874-1923) was no fan of liturgical fastidiousness in spite of having penned what he termed his "dreadful ceremonies book."

As he wrote in 1920 before attempting the correction of the book's first edition: "Not one halfpennyworth of principle or of historic research is affected by the question whether the thurifer should stand on the left or on the right at any given moment. I would just as soon spend hours verifying the hours at which trains start on some railway line that I shall never use."

His distaste for liturgical minutiae was apparent and it ironically fell to one of his sharpest critics, Canon J.B. O'Connell, to correct and review the subsequent 12 editions. Notwithstanding the author's reservations, the book remains a valuable resource for the knowledge of the previous rite and for clarifications regarding some aspects not covered in the present books. All the same, I have often found L. Trimeloni's Italian "Compendio di Liturgia Pratica" (1963), more complete and better referenced.

As with thurifers, so with bells et al. Many liturgical customs arose from practical concerns and only later became codified into law with the result that what may have arose as a simple pastoral solution, or a gesture of courtesy, was transformed into a strict obligation.

While one sometimes desires greater clarity and precision from the present liturgical books, in general we can be grateful that they no longer attempt to legislate each and every detail and allow for reasonable adaptations to concrete circumstances.

I think we should see the question of the use, or non-use, of the bells at St. Peter's in this light. I believe that the use of this bell dates from somewhere toward the middle of Pope John Paul II's pontificate, for I remember assisting at some Masses where it was not yet used.

I think therefore that the question asked was not so much if this bell forms part of papal tradition but rather if it serves a legitimate pastoral purpose at a papal Mass. Evidently, the response is that it certainly does. ZE05090621

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