By Dr. Judy Bullock
At the end of World War II, church bells rang across the nation, contributing to the euphoria of a jubilant people. Today on Sunday morning the effect of pealing bells also has an uplifting quality that adds to the celebratory aura of Sunday liturgy and an engaging call to worship.
In contrast, church bells may be rung before a funeral liturgy, tolling the last journey of a Christian to the church. Both in celebration and in mourning, the ringing of bells enhances each celebration.
With the exception of the bells that may be rung during the Glory to God at the Easter Vigil to add festivity to the celebration of the resurrection and the bell choirs that may enhance the parish music ministry, the bells that may be rung during Mass are primarily for instructional purposes — a call to attentiveness.
A little history of bells in the Mass
The architectural design of 11th and 12th century churches, combined with the manner of celebration of the liturgy during these ages, resulted in the use of bells to provide some communication to the people during Mass.
The altar was located in the sanctuary a great distance from the people. The language of the liturgy was Latin, understood only by the professionals of the day. The priest faced away from the people and prayed the Eucharistic Prayer in a soft voice.
All these factors prevented the congregation from hearing or seeing much of the liturgy. A bell was rung to alert the people that something important was going to take place and to look up and see the elevated sacred host and the chalice containing the precious blood.
With the liturgical revisions in the late 1960s, the altar was moved closer to the people, the priest faced the people and the texts of the Mass were allowed to be prayed in the mother tongue.
These changes resulted in our being able to follow the Mass more easily, since we could hear and understand the words of the Eucharistic Prayer and easily see the elevations. The people no longer have great need for a signal with these clearer communications.
Within the order of the Mass there are no indications in the rubrics that call for the ringing of a bell at a particular moment. However the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #150, provides some counsel on the use of bells within the Eucharistic Prayer. The instruction says that, if appropriate, a small bell may be rung a little before the consecration as a signal to the faithful and also according to local custom at each elevation.
Why are bells rung during Mass in some parishes and not in others?
The General Instruction does not indicate the mandatory use of a bell during the Eucharistic Prayer. The key phrases are “if appropriate” and “according to local custom.”
Since the instruction indicates a small bell is rung to signal the faithful, the need for this signal today is questionable. Even with a diminished need, a bell may be rung if it is the local custom. Usually this phrase is an indicator of long term practice, not one that would be newly initiated. Local custom may prevail unless the actual practice has pejorative results, such as a poorly timed or disruptive effect on the unity and sacredness of the prayer.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.