Online Edition – March 2005
Vol. XI, No. 1
Their History and Use in the Catholic Church
by Matthew D. Herrera
Most Catholic Christians are familiar with Sanctus bells. Though the bells are still heard in many parishes, many wonder about them. Some long to hear their joyful sounds; and some erroneously believe their use during the Mass is now prohibited.
Sanctus bells1 derive their name from being rung first during the Sanctus [Holy, Holy, Holy Lord…]. They have been rung as part of the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Church for more than 800 years.2
Most Sanctus bells used today are small hand-held bells or assemblies of three to five bells that are rung during the Mass as directed in Chapter IV, paragraph 150 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):
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.
Bells in the Bible
The use of bells is mentioned four times in the Old Testament of the Bible. Exodus 28:33-35 describes the vestments worn by the high priest Aaron as he approached the Arc of the Covenant in the Holiest of Holies:
On its skirts you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, around its skirts, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, round about on the skirts of the robe. And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, lest he die.
This description of Aaron’s extremely ornate priestly vestments is repeated in Exodus 39:25-26 and again in Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 45:9 :
And he encircled him with pomegranates, with very many golden bells round about, to send forth a sound as he walked, to make their ringing heard in the temple as a reminder to the sons of his people.
The bells were likely included as part of high-priest Aaron’s vestments for two reasons. First, they created a joyful noise to God, which is something man should undertake as described in Psalm 98:4. Secondly, bells were long thought to possess apotropaic powers, or the power to ward off evil spirits. The bells were seen as tools to be used to avert dangers to Aaron before he entered the Holiest of Holies.
Bells were also used to signify adoration to God during early times, as shown in Zechariah 14:20:
And on that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, "Holy to the Lord". And the pots in the house of the Lord shall be as the bowls before the altar.
The ancient cymbals mentioned in Psalm 150:5-6 are said to have resembled water pitchers with wide open necks, similar to the bells of today:5
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
The use of bells in the Church dates back to the fifth century, when Saint Paulinus, the Bishop of Nola, introduced them as a means to summon monks to worship. In the seventh century Pope Sabinianus approved the use of bells to call the faithful to the Mass. The Venerable Bede, an English saint of the eighth century, is credited with the introduction of bell ringing at Requiem Masses. By the ninth century the use of bells had spread to even the small parish churches of the western Roman Empire.
It wasn’t until the thirteenth century that outdoor tower bells began to be rung as "Sanctus bells" during the Mass. It is interesting to note that tower bells are still used today as Sanctus bells at the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican and a great many other historic churches and cathedrals. A close look at many of these older structures will often reveal a series of sighting holes (and sometimes mirrors) that were once used by bell-ringers to monitor the celebration of the Mass from bell-lofts so that the bells could be rung at the proper time. Many churches, particularly in England, later placed small Sanctus bells atop the rood screen (between the chancel and the nave of the church) as a refinement of using large, outdoor tower bells.
These 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 (often in conjunction with select musical instruments such as the lyre) 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!
The practice of ringing bells to create a joyful noise for the Lord during the Mass is based to some degree on the use of tintinnabula (or tiny bells) or crotal bells that were a part of ancient Judaic worship.
Ringing the bells also gave notice to those unable to attend the Mass (the sick, slaves, outside guards, etc.) that something divine and miraculous was taking place inside of the church building. The voice of the bell would allow people to stop what they were doing to offer an act of adoration to God. Additionally, the bells helped to focus the attention of the faithful inside the church on the miracle that was taking place on the altar of sacrifice.
Eventually, handheld bells, sanctuary-based chimes and sacring rings or "Gloria wheels" (commonly used in Spain and during the Mission Period in Alta California) began to replace the tower bells rung during Mass — largely for convenience.
Nearly 350 years after the introduction of the Sanctus bells rung during the Liturgy, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) formally mandated their use during the celebration of the Mass. Thus for the first time the use of the bells became a required part of the official rubrics of the Mass. Ringing the bells is still required for the "Tridentine" Mass; though the practice was made optional when the post-Conciliar Missal was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969.
Ringing the Sanctus Bells
The majority of Sanctus bells being rung during Mass today are of the handheld variety. Bronze Sanctus bells, while quite expensive (typically $200-400/set) are sonically far superior to their brass or cast iron counterparts. Sanctus bells are traditionally kept on the epistle (left) side of the credence table during the Mass, and ringing them has long been the responsibility of the instituted acolyte or altar server.
The bells are rung at three or four points during the celebration of the Mass:
1. Sanctus bells are first rung prior to the consecration at the epiclesis when the priest prays to the Holy Spirit to change the gifts of bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
2. The bells are rung a second time as the priest elevates and presents the Body of Christ.
3. The bells are rung a third time as the celebrant elevates and presents the chalice filled with the Precious Blood.
4. The bells may be rung a fourth time as the priest-celebrant consumes the Precious Blood. This custom, which originated from the rubrics of the Tridentine Mass, may be continued since it is not forbidden nor suppressed in the latest version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
Sanctus bells may also be rung at specified times outside of the Mass, such as during Holy Benediction and during adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Ringing techniques can vary as well. In some cases the bells are rung for three short bursts at both of the elevations/presentations as defined by the rubrics in the 1962 Missale Romanum. These three short bursts are said to represent the three persons of the Holy Trinity. If executed well this triple ringing can sound quite solemn, but a single ringing of the bells at each specified point in the Mass is adequate.
Bells in Eastern Churches
The liturgical use of bells in the Catholic Church is not limited to the Latin Rite. While the familiar Sanctus bells are not used in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches during the celebration of the Divine Liturgies, other types of bells play important roles in some Eastern Catholic Rites.
Outdoor tower bells (ranging in size from small to the truly gigantic) are often rung in harmony just before, at the beginning, or during the Anaphora (or Eucharistic prayer) of the Divine Liturgies.
Many Eastern Catholics were accustomed to the clacking sounds of handheld narrow wooden boards called semantrons. Semantrons are struck by special hammers at various points, producing sounds of various timbres. It was not the actual sound but the rhythm that carried the message.
Bell ringing in the Eastern Catholic Churches (and the Western Church for that matter) became akin at times to the Hebrew shofars — the ram’s horn trumpets of the Old Testament used to proclaim the joys, sorrows and particularly the bloodless liturgical offerings to God.6
In the Syro-Malankara and Syriac Catholic Churches, bells are attached to the Marvahtho (a long-handled fan.) The Marvahtho’s design represents the face and wings of the Seraphim. They are shaken during the most solemn parts of the Holy Qurbono (Syrian Divine Liturgy). They symbolize the presence of angels around the altar, and their sounds are intended to represent the noise made by the Seraphim’s wings. The Marvahtho is also carried in procession during the Holy Qurbono.
Additionally in the East, many censers (or thuribles) have either twelve or thirteen bells attached to their support chains that sound when the censer is swung. The twelve bells represent the twelve apostles. (In some cases a thirteenth bell, one that is incapable of producing a sound, is added to represent Judas Iscariot.) The sound of the censer bells, in addition to making a "joyful noise", also helps to draw the congregation’s attention to the activity at the altar.
Some people think the use of the Sanctus bells is obsolete, as the Mass is in the vernacular and the celebrant now usually faces the congregation. The people can now hear and see, the reasoning goes, thus negating the need for an auditory signal. But the purpose of Sanctus bells’ is not just to "wake up" the congregation to the consecration of the Eucharist. Sounding the bells at the moment Christ becomes present in the Eucharistic species of bread and wine is an audible sign of our joyous praise and thanksgiving. (All bells are silent during the Triduum of Holy Week from after Mass on Holy Thursday until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil.)
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments reinforced the GIRM with the following response in Volume 8 of its official publication, Notitiae, in 1972:
It all depends on the different circumstances of places and people, as is clear from GIRM no. 109 [no. 150 in the current GIRM]:
"A little before the consecration the server may ring a bell as a signal to the faithful. Depending on local custom, he also rings the bell at the showing of both the host and the chalice." From a long and attentive catechesis and education in liturgy, a particular liturgical assembly may be able to take part in the Mass with such attention and awareness that it has no need of this signal at the central part of the Mass. This may easily be the case, for example, with religious communities or with particular or small groups. The opposite may be presumed in a parish or public church, where there is a different level of liturgical and religious education and where often people who are visitors or are not regular churchgoers take part. In these cases the bell as a signal is entirely appropriate and is sometimes necessary. To conclude: usually a signal with the bell should be given, at least at the two elevations, in order to elicit joy and attention.
This not only lays to rest the unfounded claim that Sanctus bells were outlawed by Vatican Council II, it once again underscores their value for use during Mass.
The use of Sanctus bells has been attacked by those who wish to streamline the Mass by stripping away as many vestiges of the past as possible. In their view eliminating anything optional during the Mass helps the faithful to focus on Jesus Christ. One need only view a Pontifical Mass celebrated by the pope at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran to understand the fallacy of this argument.
Another argument without foundation is that Sanctus bells came into use when "walls were built between the altar and the faithful" — separating the congregation from the sanctuary. Some have also claimed that the use of Sanctus bells interrupts the "seamlessness" or the "continuity" of the Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer.7
It has also been said that the bells have been replaced by the congregation saying or singing the Sanctus. But if this were true the Church never would have required the ringing of Sanctus bells either for the Tridentine Mass (where the altar boys or choir said or sang the Sanctus), or permitted bells in the current Missal.
Some have claimed that the consecration and presentation of the Eucharist are no more significant than any other part of the Mass, so it would be wrong to highlight these points by ringing the bells. The entire Mass is certainly an awesome gift from God; but the moments of consecration are certainly the most profound during the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The bells signal this.
Renaissance of Bells
The use of Sanctus bells is enjoying a renaissance in the Catholic Church today. As Catholic liturgical history becomes better disseminated and understood, more and more individuals are beginning to recognize the Sanctus bells as part of the rich sacramental tradition of the Church much like oils, statuary, vestments, candles, incense, and historic and/or solemn places of worship.
Ask many Catholics today about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (particularly those who have returned to the faith, those new to the faith, or those on their journey into the Church) and they will speak glowingly of the bells and smells (use of incense.) They understand that the bells and incense help them to connect to God in a deep and mysterious way. (A recent poll on the Catholic Answers web site substantiated the appeal of the use of Sanctus bells.)
In an era where a tragically large number of Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist,8 the ringing of Sanctus bells (and the use of incense) can underscore the miracle that takes place upon the altar. Ringing the bells also continues to create a joyful noise to the Lord, and one cannot discount the effect the bells have on the faithful. Obviously, the use of Sanctus bells is not necessary for the validity of the sacrament nor will it solve all worship problems, but properly used Sanctus bells can be a powerful devotional aid in today’s Catholic Church.
Blessing the Bells
Bells (including Sanctus bells) have traditionally been blessed before being placed into service in the Church. The blessing of bells has even been been called "baptism of bells", due to the extremely solemn process of blessing bells in the past, which resembled a baptism.
The old ritual for blessing bells called for washing the bells with holy water, anointing the exterior of the bells with the oil of the sick, anointing the interior of the bell with chrism, placing a censer filled with burning incense under each bell, special prayers, and readings from Sacred Scripture.9
Today the order for the blessing of bells is greatly simplified. It closely resembles the Liturgy of the Word including this beautiful Prayer of Blessing10
We praise you, Lord, Father all-holy. To a world wounded and divided by sin you sent your only Son. He gave His life for His sheep, to gather them into one fold and to guide and feed them as their one shepherd.
May your people hasten to your church when they hear the call of this bell.
May they persevere in the teaching of the apostles, in steadfast fellowship, in unceasing prayer, and in the breaking of the bread. May they remain ever one in mind and heart to the glory of your name.
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The bells are then sprinkled with holy water and incensed.
7 The popular theological hypothesis of considering the entire Eucharistic Prayer as consecratory in the hopes of achieving a deeper understanding of the Eucharistic Mystery has some merit. It is terribly incorrect, however, to suggest that the actual transformation (of either species) does not take place instantaneously at a specific moment in time, that instead it is a gradual process that can be interrupted by the ringing of Sanctus bells. It’s either bread or wine, or the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ – there is no intermediate state.
8 The Gallup Organization conducted a telephone poll of 519 Catholics in America regarding their attitudes and beliefs about Holy Communion. The poll was conducted from December 10, 1991 to January 19, 1992. It showed that only about 65-70% of those Catholics polled actually believed in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
Scripture citations from the Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition
Matthew D. Herrera is a bell-ringer and fifth-generation parishioner of Old Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, regularly attends the Divine Liturgy at St. Anne Byzantine Catholic Church in San Luis Obispo, California, and is a member of the Order of Minor Historians (his e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org).