|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
— 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
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
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
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
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
* * *
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
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