Why Do We Ring Bells at the Consecration?

8 Nov

The bells at the time of the consecration at Mass signify the coming of the Person of Jesus Christ under the appearances of bread and wine at the consecration. It is interesting to note that bells are mentioned several times in Scripture, and in every instance it is in connection with liturgical worship (e.g., Ex. 28:31-35; Zech. 14:20; Sir. 45:9). In most instances, the bells draw attention to the coming of a sacred person.

When it comes to the use of bells during the Eucharistic Prayer, as the assembly anticipates and welcomes the coming of Christ under the appearances of bread and wine, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (“GIRM”) provides:

“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” (no. 150).

By “a little before the consecration” is generally understood the epiclesis, when the priest put his hands over the gifts and calls down the Holy Spirit upon them. The priest “shows” the host and chalice immediately after the consecration by elevating them so that the faithful can see them.

In 1972, the following question was posed to the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments: “Is a bell to be rung at Mass?” The Vatican’s authoritative reply provided this illuminating explanation:

“. . . From a long and attentive catechesis and education in liturgy, a particular liturgical assembly may be able to take part in the Mass with such attention and awareness that it has no need of this signal at the central part of the Mass. This may easily be the case, for example, with religious communities or with particular or small groups. The opposite may be presumed in a parish or public church, where there is a different level of liturgical and religious education and where often people who are visitors or are not regular churchgoers take part. In these cases the bell as a signal is entirely appropriate and is sometimes necessary. To conclude: usually a signal with the bell should be given, at least at the two elevations, in order to elicit joy and attention” (Notitiae 8 (1972), 195-196, as quoted in Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts, 1452, emphasis added).

 

10 Responses to “Why Do We Ring Bells at the Consecration?”

  1. Sheryl November 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    Today there has been so much more education with the assembly (laity) knowing when the point of consecration occurs the bells are less required. I have always found the bells to be a distraction not an enhancement of my worship. In fact the paragraph cited almost excuses the laity from needing to pay attention to all the Eucharistic prayers because they can rely on the bells for their cue. Also I have always understood that the bells came into practice when the priest said prayers in the “Holy of Holy” place in the sanctuary behind a curtain and the bells would be rung because the people could not follow along as well due to not seeing the Eucharist nor understanding the language of the prayers/ mass. In fact Church History will identify the poor practice of running from one church to another to catch the time of consecration for an indulgence.

    Proper context needs to be explained as well as a favored quote. The more educaion and comprehension of the tradition the more spiritually mature adults the Church will see.

    • Leon Suprenant November 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

      Dear Sheryl,

      Thank you for your comment. I certainly did not intend to insult you and other well-formed adults who do not feel that bells are necessary during the sacred liturgy. Let me offer a few additional comments by way of follow up:

      (1) You suggested that I singled out a “favored quote,” perhaps out of context. What I did was provide the complete [albeit short] directive from the Church found in the GIRM as well as an explanatory quote from the relevant Vatican office. I intentionally didn’t include my own personal opinion on the topic. If I missed any subsequent authoritative teaching on the subject, please let me know!

      (2) I understand that all of us have different preferences at Mass. For example, everyone has different sensibilities when it comes to the style and selection of liturgical music. In some instances, we have to accommodate others’ preferences (for example, I just go along with the selected hymns even when I may have gone another direction if I were “in charge”). Even more, our preferences must give way to what the Church actually calls for in the liturgy–in this case, the ringing of bells during the consecration–and we do well to embrace the Church’s wisdom in such areas and allow it to transform our liturgical sensibilities.

      (3) One thing that helps a lot is the “ars celebrandi,” or the manner in which the liturgy is celebrated. It’s one thing to “follow the rite,” it’s another to do so with appropriate reverence and decorum. And so it is indeed very important that altar servers be trained well and ring the bells at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way.

      (4) Our liturgy, like our Catholic faith itself, is incarnational, and so the “smells and bells” play an important role in our liturgical experience. We stand, kneel, and sit; we sing, we speak, and we observe silence; we have vestments, candles, incense, bells, and other externals, not to mention the sacramental signs themselves. All of this is meant to engage us on every level and to prevent the Mass from being merely an intellectual “head trip.”

      (5) The explanation from the Vatican directly gainsays your opinion that bells are not needed in the typical parish experience. In my own experience, I would have to say the Vatican has it right. In one sense, you make a good point, as our laity is better educated than perhaps in past generations. But such education sadly is not necessarily reflected in the knowledge and practice of today’s Catholics. We’ve seen the polls and surveys regarding Catholics’ belief (or lack thereof) in the real presence. Those of us involved in Catholic formation can readily attest to real gaps in the religious literacy of many Catholics of all ages as opposed to past generations. And today, we have very large parishes/parish churches with a lot of noise and commotion and it does not seem to be a bad idea to let folks know that Our Lord has just become present on the altar, even if the bells aren’t strictly necessary for some.

      As an aside, I appreciate the bells, etc. for myself and my children even though we are paying attention and believe in His presence–the absence of bells is preceived almost as slighting the divine presence. In other words, why not ring bells, blow trumpets, and in every way imaginable give external homage to Our Lord and King? I know my daughters’ religious community has no problem with having bells at their daily Masses.

      We also know that in many parishes Mass attendance is sporadic and many who claim to be in communion with the Church reject Church teaching intellectually, in daily living, and through their exercise of the right to vote. So I would be most hesitant to say that we have come so far in our collective religious formation that we can easily dispense ourselves from these small but significant supports for our Eucharistic belief. This last part, of course, is but my personal opinion.

      • Ross Warnell November 8, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

        I dare say that all of us need to be much more mindful what happens during the entire liturgy, not just what happens to the bread and wine during a particular moment. Just as as the bread and wine become God broken and poured out for the life of the world, so must we, individually and corporately, be transformed into the Real Presence, and be willing to be broken and poured out for the life of the world.

        Otherwise the liturgy runs the risk of just being another expression of religiosity.

  2. Sheryl November 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    Leon,

    I did not mean to imply the quote was taken out of context. I was referring to the historical period not having been mentioned in your article as to when the practice first began and why.

    I understand and totally agree with your comment about engaging the faithful on every level. However, from what I have listened to by many who lived before Vatican II, many times the kneeling, bowing, breast beating, and bells all took on greater authority than appropriate. The symbol out weighed the meaning. I do not think we want to teach Catholics today that they are not pius enough or that their faith is lacking if they do not act, dress, or behave a certain way….as some say as “Authentic Catholics.” Where did that phrase come from anyway?

  3. Leon Suprenant November 8, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    Ross, you’re right, and in a couple weeks I am going to post on the “fully conscious and active participation” of all the faithful in the sacred liturgy emphasized at Vatican II. And yes, we do well to accentuate all the various ways that Christ is present (Word, where two or three are gathered, in the least of our brethren, in the person of the priest, etc.). All the more reason to acknowledge Christ’s presence “par excellence”–body, blood, soul, and divinity–in the Eucharist, wherein we receive the grace to minister to others, as you beautifully describe.

    Sheryl, I think there is always a risk of putting the externals ahead of interior conversion (cf. the Pharisees in Jesus’ time!). The answer is not to remove or downplay the externals, but to maintain the proper balance and form the faithful through instruction and practice. Certainly there was some breakdown in that regard in the decades immediately following Vatican II, and hopefully we’re now finding our equilibrium.

    We don’t want to tell Catholics that they’re “not pious enough” (even though most of us frankly aren’t), but we do want to set the bar in terms of instructing people in the liturgy, so that the faithful of their own volition will be able to more actively and fruitfully participate at Mass.

    You mention how we dress for Mass. See what CCC 1387 has to say about this. The fact is many of us today dress down instead of dress up for Sunday Mass, which suggests that what is happening at Mass doesn’t have priority in our lives. Obviously we must be eminently pastoral in our approach, but would it be a bad thing if the pastor were to encourage us to dress modestly and well for what Vatican II called the “source and summit of the Christian life”?

    I imagine some people use the expression “authentic Catholics” to distinguish Catholics who, despite their sins and failings, believe what the Church teaches and try to practice it from those who call themselves “Catholics” in exit polls but whose belief system and practice is far removed from Christ and His Church. It is in fact this reality that has given the impetus to a “new evangelization.” All that being said, “authentic Catholics” sounds elitist and judgmental to me, and I would think there are better, more sensitive ways to say the same things . . .

    • James Likoudis November 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

      The General Instruction on the Roman Missal (#150) noltes : “A little before the consecration, when appropriate, a server rig\ngs the 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. ”
      Since the Church certainly sanctions the use of the bell for the faithful to focus on the “mystery of faith” taking place, my question is “why does my parish priest forbid the ringing of the bell at the consecration when the people repeatedly request it only to be rebuffed? Why will he not kneel at the consecration of the Mass? Why this sort of iconoclasm in many of our liberal parishes intent on stripping all mystery and mysticism from the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? Why, by the way , has the latter term disappeared from use?
      We only hear “celebration of Eucharist”. All this plays a role in the statistics on Mass attendance since hum-drum banal liturgy turns people off.

  4. Michael F. November 8, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    I agree with the Vatican’s reply and Leon’s explanation. It’s helpful to have such cues and reminders – rather like the sanctuary lamp that reminds us that the Lord is present in the tabernacle.

    I find little evidence that the laity are generally so well-instructed and uniformly engaged that the bells are superfluous or even counter-productive. The argument that the bells excuse the laity from paying attention doesn’t seem very compelling to me, either. With young people, in particular, I find that the bells are very helpful. Today’s youth have difficulty focusing and are used to a high level of visual and auditory stimulation. So, from a pastoral perspective, I think the continued use of the bells makes a great deal of sense.

  5. Nicole Smith November 12, 2012 at 2:45 am #

    As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/4061.htm#article1): “the condition of human nature…is such that it has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible” it is completely understandable that we then have what Mr. Suprenant calls “the smells and bells.”

    • Ross Warnell November 12, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      One thing we must keep in mind at all times is that the Eucharist is intended to be an integral part of an incarnational lifestyle.

      The condition of human nature wants to turn it into religion pietistic practices, so it becomes an exercise in us groping to find God rather than celebrating God finding us.

  6. Sylvester December 10, 2015 at 8:18 pm #

    Alway ring the bell becouse it make God and man happy.

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