A sure sign that your parish has been possessed by a liturgist is the absence of altar bells, those gentle, attention-focusing reminders typically rung at the sanctus and the consecration.
They are usually depicted as preconciliar holdovers no longer necessary because, with the Mass now mostly in the vernacular, everyone knows what’s going on and when. More dangerously, it is sometimes said that there is no “moment” of consecration and that we shouldn’t be so fixated on Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist — He’s present in the assembly after all!
And besides, according to the GIRM, bells are merely optional. Well, so is the sign of peace and communion under both species. When was the last time you saw those two options suppressed by a liturgist or worship committee?
A few years ago Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, answered a question about the use of bells that those in … non-ringing parishes may find useful:
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 were there no complaints but the general reaction was very positive from all age groups.