Ring, ring ring.
If you hear this at church this weekend, it might be your pew neighbor’s cell phone. Most likely, though, it’s the altar bells.
Sometimes called “sanctus bells,” these bells have announced various parts of the Mass for centuries. Usually three in number, the bells are rung by an altar server. The most common time to hear these bells is at the elevations of the consecrated host and wine, the elements of the Blessed Sacrament.
However, while many of us have seen and heard these small bells during Mass, not as many have heard the church bells in the towers used at this time as well. Yet that is exactly what once happened at various churches and cathedrals around the world, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where the large tower bell rings out at the moment of the consecration — even today.
Bells have been used by Christians to announce prayers at least since the sixth century. However, once bells were placed in church towers — which had become common by the eighth century in Europe — they served many purposes. The most famous was probably the “Angelus bell,” used to announce moments of morning, noon and evening prayer. Some churches still ring the Angelus bells, in three sets of three, followed by a joyous pealing.
Back in the days when watches and clocks were rare, bells announced the times of the day as well as the start of Masses and prayer services. Church bells were also used to mark other special times, such as when someone was dying (called “the passing bell”), the funeral toll and even for warning of approaching storms or at times of invasion. There were also times of joyous bell ringing, as at weddings or Christmas.
Bells themselves, however, have a much longer history. Ancient Chinese, Babylonians, Greeks and Egyptians used them in worship and for pageants. The Old Testament tells us that Moses’ brother, Aaron, wore gold bells on the hem of his priestly vestments (Ex. 28:33-35 and 39:25-26).
In the early Christian churches of the East, starting in Constantinople, bells were not often used; instead, gongs and even wooden percussion instruments were common. These wood instruments, called semantron in Greek, developed in the monastic traditions and were used as a way to summon monks for prayer and liturgy. Semantra, made of wood or metal, are still common in the Eastern Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches. (They are also related to instruments like the xylophone and marimba.)
However, it was not from the East that the cup-shaped bells we know today entered the church. Instead, it was largely due to Irish and Celtic missionaries who adapted square-shaped cow bells to announce their arrivals in the towns to which they traveled.
Many of these ancient bells — called clog in Gaelic (from which came the German word glocke as in “glockenspiel”) — are preserved today. A plain iron bell, said to be St. Patrick’s (d. 493), is currently on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
Actual handheld altar bells, eventually used throughout Europe, developed later, around the 13th century. Since Mass was celebrated in Latin by that time, which few understood or spoke, people often recited personal prayers during the Mass. Also, due to the size of churches and the lack of good acoustics for the spoken word, many people could not hear when the exact moment of consecration came. So, to announce the elevation of the sacred bread and wine, altar bells were rung to draw attention to the altar and to the elevation of the host and chalice there.
Church historian Matthew Herrera notes that altar bells had been part of Catholic culture for more than three centuries before the Council of Trent (1545-63) mandated their use during the Mass. With the Novus Ordo Mass in 1970, following liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, altar bells became optional and are now used according to local tradition. Their use at Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (sometimes called the Latin Mass) of 1962 is still part of the Roman Missal (the liturgical book).
When altar bells are used, there are several specific times. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, they currently may be rung “as the priest shows the host and then the chalice” (n. 150).
The bells have also been rung prior to the consecration, when the priest prays that the gifts of bread and wine be changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. This is the moment known as “the epiclesis” and happens as the priest places his hands over the gifts upon the altar and calls upon the Holy Spirit to sanctify them.
In times past, the bells were also rung during the “Holy, Holy,” which is the Sanctus (“Holy” in Latin), which is why the bells have been called the “sanctus bells.”
Sometimes the altar bells are given just one ring – traditionally lasting three seconds — or they have been rung in sets of three. The three-second time frame or the three rings symbolize the Trinity.
Some people will say that the bells are not necessary today, because the Mass is in the vernacular. Others will say that people “should know what is going on” and pay attention without the need for bells.
However, it is also important to remember another reason that bells have been used at liturgies: they express joy. Psalm 150 reminds us to “give praise with crashing cymbals, praise him with sounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord! Hallelujah!”
If you doubt that bells used at Mass express joy, just remember that — from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil — bells in church are silent. On Easter — and throughout the 50 days of the Easter season — they ring again with resurrection joy.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia;” Sanctus Bells, History and Use in the Catholic Church”; “General Instruction of the Roman Missal”; russianbells.com; zenit.org; museum.ie; and fisheaters.com.