Tuesday, September 3, 2013

School bells and Church bells

People have noticed that for CMH All-School Masses and some daily masses, we have started using the bells during the Eucharistic prayers.  Some are asking "why?"  Here are some thoughts I shared with a theology class of juniors, and an informational text sent to teachers.

“Bringing Back” the Bells?

Catholics of a certain age are familiar with Sanctus bells. Though the bells are now heard in many parishes, some wonder about them. Some long to hear joyful sounds; and some believe that their use was prohibited.   Sanctus bells get their name from having been rung first during the Sanctus [Holy, Holy, Holy...]. They have been rung as part of the celebration of the Mass for more than 800 years. 

Most Sanctus bells today are small hand-held bells that are rung during the Mass as directed in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM).  The reason for ringing bells is, first, to create a joyful noise to the Lord; second, the ringing bells signaled that something supernatural was taking place.

Bells in the Bible

Use of bells is mentioned many times in the Old Testament.  In Exodus, Aaron wore bells so that he would be heard by the people whenever he entered the Holy of Holies.  Bells were used to give adoration to God, as shown in Zechariah.  The cymbals mentioned in Psalm 150 are similar to the bells of today:  Praise Him with sounding cymbals; praise Him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Origin of Bells in Churches

Using bells in Church dates back to the 5th century, when St. Paulinus used them to call monks to prayer. In the 7th century Pope Sabinianus approved using bells to call the faithful to the Mass. The Venerable Bede is credited with the introduction of bell ringing at Requiem Masses. By the 9th century the use of bells had spread to even the small parish churches throughout the Roman Empire.

By the 13th century tower bells were rung as "Sanctus bells" during the Mass. This practice still occurs at St. Peter’s Basilica and many historic churches and cathedrals.  In many of these older structures there is a series of peek holes (and even mirrors) that were used by bell-ringers to monitor the celebration of the Mass so that the bells could be rung at the proper times.  The tower bells were rung at the consecration and presentation of the Eucharist. First and foremost, the Sanctus bells were rung during the Mass to create a joyful noise to the Lord as described in Psalm 98:4: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

Ringing the bells gave notice to those unable to attend the Mass that something divine and miraculous was taking place. The call of the bell allowed people to stop what they were doing to offer an act of adoration to God. Additionally, the bells helped to unify the focus of attention among those in the church on the miracle taking place on the altar. Eventually, for convenience, handheld bells replaced the tower bells rung during Mass.

Following the 2nd Vatican Council, the promulgation of the Novus Ordo mass in 1969 did not remove, nor restrict, the use of Sanctus bells.  In 2003, the 3rd Edition of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal specifically clarified the use of bells during the Eucharistic Prayers.

Ringing the Sanctus Bells

Sanctus bells today are rung at three or four points during the celebration of the Mass:

1. At the epiclesis, when the priest prays to the Holy Spirit to change the gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

2. As the priest elevates and presents the Body of Christ.

3. As the priest elevates and presents the chalice filled with the Precious Blood.

4. Bells may be rung a fourth time as the priest consumes the Precious Blood.

Bell Confusion

Some people think that the use of Sanctus bells is obsolete, as the Mass is in the vernacular and the celebrant now faces the congregation. The people can now hear and see, thus negating the need for bells as a signal. But the purpose of Sanctus bells is not just to "wake up" the congregation to the consecration of the Eucharist. On one level, sounding the bells at the highest moments of the Eucharistic Prayers is an audible sign of our joyous praise and thanksgiving.  (It is interesting to note that all bells are silent during the Triduum of Holy Week from after Mass on Holy Thursday until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil.) On another level, that of seeking a unified moment of focus among the faithful, unity is not ensured just by some common knowledge.  For example, in a school day, all teachers and students know the schedule and can read a clock, but bells are still necessary throughout the day.

Put most simply, the entire Mass is certainly an awesome gift from God; but the moments of consecration are certainly the most profound and transcendent elements. The bells signal this. 

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