By Fr. Michel Mulloy, Vicar General
Smells and bells. That was a common and somewhat irreverent way of referring to symbols in the Catholic Church. We have always had the smells (incense) but for many years, except in the extraordinary form of the Mass, there were no bells save those hanging in the tower. In some parishes they are back to the delight of some and the consternation of others and there is confusion as to why bells during Mass are not heard in every parish or at the same time.
Historically bells have been rung for warnings, for reminders, for protection and for celebration. They also called people to prayer. Beginning in the 13th century bells were rung during the consecration of the Mass to remind people of this solemn moment. People out in the fields and those praying at Mass itself were encouraged to stop their work, to look up from their prayers and to adore the Lord present in his body and blood. This seems strange to us, but we must remember that the Mass was celebrated in Latin and at some distance from the faithful gathered so that they neither heard nor understood what the priest was praying. The bells reminded the faithful that the Lord was present in a unique way in the moment of consecration.
The advent of the liturgical reforms that sprung from the Vatican Council II, and the celebration of the Mass in English with the priest facing the people silenced the bells. The faithful could see and understand what the priest was praying. In the recent reform of the Roman Missal (2011) the use of the bells was renewed. It is stated this way in the General Instruction that governs our celebration of the Mass. “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.” GIRM 150. This directive needs some explanation.
First the wording tells us that ringing the bells during Mass is optional. It has not been the local custom in our diocese and the phrase “if appropriate” leaves room for choice. Simply said the pastor has the option to ring or not ring the bells during the consecration. Second, because it is a choice the pastor can choose to ring the bell just before the
consecration and/or during the elevations. Pastors might do this differently. Third, it does not offer a directive concerning the number of times the bell is rung at each elevation. Finally, the mention of a “small” bell does not determine the size of the bells used for this occasion. Small here means a bell rung with one’s hand versus the bells rung in the tower of the church.
It is important in witnessing this return to a former practice to not make more of it than is intended. It is meant as a signal, a way of calling the faithful to attention and reminding them what is happening during this moment in the Mass. It is not a sign of better or worse, and the personal choice of the pastor or the individual faithful is not a mark of their holiness. It is a choice pure and simple with a noble tradition that pastors have the freedom to use or not use.