My Dear Parishioners:
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 during Mass.
For example, scented incense is sometimes used to represent our prayers rising to the heavens. The scent of the incense permeates everything. We smell it. Liturgical artwork, such as statues or stained glass windows, inspires us as it reflects the beauty of God’s creation. When we 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. It is a ‘taste of the heavenly banquet.’
These are but a few examples of this crucial aspect of our faith. It is a ‘full body experience’. Perhaps one further way our faith exemplifies this incarnational reality is sound. The beauty of liturgical music is a perfect example. Our voices come together in praise, lament, petition, communion. Let us not, however, forget the ringing of church bells. The bells call us to worship. The bells ring throughout the day to recall the passage of time or to mark the 3:00 hour. Indeed, sometimes a bell is even rung during the Mass. 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 particular 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.
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 that 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 this moment of the Mass, we receive a subtle reminder to, “Pay attention, Jesus is coming. He is here. He is present!
As an incarnational faith, “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.
Beginning with the new liturgical year (1st Sunday of Advent, Nov 27 & 28) servers will begin ringing bells here at Saint Stephen Cathedral during the Eucharistic prayer. Let us joyfully and fully participate in the prayers and presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Blessings, Fr. John