You must have noticed the sound of Hand bells (Sanctus bells) during the Mass. We began to use bells this year from the Easter Vigil Mass onwards. At our last Parish Pastoral Council, there was an overwhelming appreciation for introducing the bells. Many of you told me of your joy at hearing the bells, evoking childhood memories. One parishioner asked me about the significance of bells. Another wanted to know why some parishes use bells and some don’t. I had been planning to explain these at the earliest chance which is happening in this column.
The ringing of bells during the consecration has a long history in the church, beginning about the 13th century. In those days, churches were large, the priest faced the altar. and Mass was offered in Latin, a language most ordinary folks did not know. Still they came faithfully to church to pray and so they would recite the rosary and novena prayers to different saints during the Mass. The church realized the need for directing the attention of the congregation to the altar at least during those important moments of the Mass. Thus bells were introduced to be rung primarily before the gospel proclamation, during the elevation of the Host, the elevation of the chalice and before receiving Holy Communion.
However, the Second Vatican Council decided to have the Mass offered in the vernacular, in the language of the people, so that all can understand the prayers. According to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pt 2:9; see 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. This made the bells redundant as everyone was called to participate attentively in the Holy Eucharist. Hence many churches discontinued the use of bells. But people missed the bells, because we humans are slaves of habit.
Does that mean bells are prohibited by the church? No. Here’s what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says: “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” (No. 150). Besides, it is biblical. The Old Testament mentions the use of bells on four occasions: Exodus 28:33-35, 39: 25-26; Ecclesiasticus 45:9, and Zechariah 14:20; Psalm 98:4; Psalm 150: 5-6.
From my Indian background, it may interest us to know the meaning of bells in a Hindu temple. When a devotee enters the Hindu temple, he or she rings a bell. The devotee is saying to the god or goddess of that temple: “Lord, I am here, please give me your ear.”
We have to understand that as human beings, we are distracted during Mass, and so bells can help us concentrate, by bringing our attention to the most important moment of the Mass. Bells also add reverence and solemnity to the Eucharistic celebration. May the introduction of bells help us to be more attentive in the sacred Liturgy.
Your brother in Christ,
Fr. Abraham Orapankal