Why ring bells in the middle of Mass?

Question

Why do some churches ring bells during the Eucharistic Prayer while others don’t? – Hortonville

Answer

One of the most wonderful things about our Catholic faith is that it is very incarnational. By this I mean that not only our minds, but our bodies and senses, too, are engaged completely when we worship God at Mass.

For example, curiously scented incense is sometimes used to represent our prayers rising to the heavens. Liturgical artwork, such as statues or stained glass windows, inspires us as it reflects the beauty of God’s creation. And if we are able to receive holy Communion, we taste and see that the Lord is good under the elements of bread and wine now fully become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

These are but a few examples of this crucial aspect of our faith. Perhaps one further way our faith exemplifies this incarnational reality is sound. The beauty of liturgical music is a perfect example, but let’s not forget the ringing of church bells. Indeed, sometimes a bell is even rung during the Mass. This is the subject of this brief response. Now, what exactly is the purpose and origin of this tradition?

For centuries, the practice was to ring a bell at certain times to call the attention of the faithful to the holiest moments of the Mass. Chief among these is the calling down of the Holy Spirit at the epiclesis and at the words of consecration during the Eucharistic Prayer.

The Mass was celebrated in Latin for over 1,500 years. And, over time, fewer and fewer people fully understood this language. So a bell was rung to remind them what was happening. Additionally, the placement and design of the altar often partially obstructed what was happening in the sanctuary. Again a bell was rung to assist the faithful.

After the Second Vatican Council, Mass was again permitted to be celebrated in the language of the people (vernacular). Since the new form of the Mass was supposedly easier to understand, and since many of the complex rituals of the Latin Mass were simplified, the thinking was ringing bells was no longer necessary. It has remained optional ever since, still existing by tradition in a few parishes, set aside in some and recently restored to use in others.

The current rubrics of the Mass state, “A little before the consecration, if appropriate, a minister rings a small bell as a signal to the faithful. The minister also rings the small bell at each elevation by the Priest, according to local custom.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, n. 150)

Why still ring the bell? A case could be made that it is no longer necessary, since the Mass is usually celebrated in the vernacular and the arrangement of the sanctuary enables a greater view of the altar. However, another perspective holds that ringing a bell at Mass is still important because of a decline of faith in the holy eucharist as truly being the Body and Blood of Christ. By ringing the bell during the holiest moments of the Mass, we receive a subtle reminder to, “Pay attention, Jesus is coming. He is here on the altar. He will soon be present within us in the holy eucharist!”

As an incarnational faith, the “smells and bells” at Catholic Mass are a wonderful way by which we can enter more deeply into the worship of God. This worship involves not just our minds, but our bodies and five senses, too.

 

Fr. Girotti is vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.