Thursday, August 25, 2005

Q: 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

A: 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 where there no complaints but the general reaction was very positive from all age groups.

~courtesy of Zenit, which has available many other interesting liturgical questions and their answers

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