Why don’t we have bells rung at the Consecration any more? It seems to me that the Consecration, said without any special emphasis, tends to blend in with the rest in such a way that it is easy to miss it, especially if one gets distracted.
First, I would like to reflect on bells and their long and venerable history for Christians. Use of bells in churches began in the fourth century, was approved by the pope in the seventh and began to be part of most churches by the eighth. New bells are prayed over and blessed with holy oils. There is an elaborate ritual for this ceremony.
Bells called worshippers to Mass. In the Middle Ages, when there were multiple bells in one church, different combinations were rung to indicate the grade of the feast, the nature of the service (Mass, Vespers, etc.), even if a sermon would be preached. Soon, no religious service would take place without the ringing of bells.
Bells were heard morning, noon and evening for the Angelus. Bells were rung to alert labourers and others, who could not attend Mass, that the Consecration was taking place so they could stop their work and pray. Millet’s painting of the field workers pausing to pray immortalized this practice.
Missionaries used hand-bells to gather people for teaching the Word of God, so these became sacred. They signaled arising and assembling in monasteries. Bells announced deaths. Each of these occasions had specific rules and rituals. Many of these customs have all but disappeared, as have bells from most modern churches.
Bells were rung for events other than those associated with religion such as the opening of the workday and curfews, joyous occasions as the crowning of kings and ending of wars. They rallied people to fight fires and warned of impending storms or disasters.
Bells were carried into battle and solemn oaths were taken on them. It was realized that those who commanded the bell, commanded the town, for ringing bells summoned armies quickly. Bells of the conquered were melted by the conquerors to make cannons.
Ringing of small bells during the Consecration at Mass began about the 13th century. They alerted worshippers who could not see the altar, especially in large churches. Some of these had raised platforms for the choir between the altar and the worshippers. The priest’s back to the people, an inaudible voice and a “foreign” language didn’t help.
After the liturgical revisions of Vatican II with the priest facing the people and Mass prayers said more audibly in the common language, there was a greater emphasis on the participation of the whole assembly.
The focus was no longer only on the words of Consecration but also on the entire Eucharistic prayer from the Preface to the Amen. Therefore, it seemed bell ringing was no longer needed since all were aware of the action of the Mass.
There is something joyful and celebratory about the sound of bells. Remember, we silenced the Mass bells during Lent and we ring the bells during the Gloria at the Easter Vigil to express joy in Christ’s resurrection. The ringing of bells expresses praise before the Real Presence of Christ as the “Holy, holy, holy” sings God’s praises.
We are made of both body and soul. Today especially, we feel the need to engage the senses by audiovisual means rather than abstract discourse. Our whole beings need to be attuned to the momentous event taking place. We use crucifixes, candles, different coloured vestments.
Sounds are important too, whether in the music, the singing or the quiet of silent prayer. All of these help make the Mass richer in meaning for us.
So, too, bells enhance the dignity and joy of celebration. They add reverence and solemnity to the Mass. Their sounds reawaken wandering minds and signal children that a special moment is occurring.
Bells have always signified momentous events. Church bells were the voice of God calling people to prayer, to God. People were reminded of God in their daily lives.
Should we bring back the bells? There may be good reasons for ringing of bells during Mass, which, although not obligatory, is permitted at specific times. Perhaps we need to re-think and re-evaluate their use. It seems that bells are always rung at the Consecration in St. Peter’s in Rome.
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