Bells at the Consecration

And More on Tabernacles and Adoration

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ROME, AUG. 23, 2005 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

A: The ringing of bells at the elevation is now omitted during the consecration; the reason given is that since the Mass is now said in the language of the parishioners, they should be aware of what is happening and are not in need of bells to tell them. Does not the ringing of bells at the elevation draw attention to the great event that has occurred on the altar? — E.H., Williamsford, Ontario

Q: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal refers to bell ringing in No. 150: «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.»

The text makes it clear that ringing a bell at the consecration is an option, not an obligation.

Since the GIRM’s presumption is that Mass is celebrated in the local tongue, the use of the vernacular, in itself, cannot be used as a reason for the abolition of the bell ringing. There may be other good reasons, but they should be weighed carefully. A long-standing custom should not just be swept away unless more is to be gained by dropping it than retaining it.

The birth of the custom of a signal bell at the consecration, probably during the 13th century, had more to do with the recitation of the canon in a low voice than to the language of the Mass as such.

It may also have been inspired by changes in church architecture in which the people were more physically separated from the altar by the choir — and in some cases a significant number of faithful were impeded from seeing the altar during Mass. Thus the use of the bell became necessary.

Some centuries later the bell was also rung at other moments such as the Sanctus and before Communion.

Certainly the practical reasons for ringing the bell have all but disappeared. Yet, it can still serve a purpose as an extra aid to call attention to the moment of the consecration, as a jolt to reawaken wandering minds and a useful catechetical tool for children and adults alike.

In an age when people are ever more in thrall to audiovisual means of communication, and less attentive to abstract discourse, it seem strange that we set about removing those very means that, as well as forming part of our tradition, could prove most effective in transmitting a message of faith. A similar argument could also be made regarding the decline in practices such as the use of incense during Mass.

The Holy See has maintained the practice of ringing the bell at the consecration in St. Peter’s Basilica, although it has an excellent sound system. I also had the experience of a parish that restored the use of the signal bell after many years without it. Not only where there no complaints but the general reaction was very positive from all age groups.

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Follow-up: Tabernacles and Adoration

Several questions have arisen regarding the tabernacle, adoration and proper reverence (see July 26).

Some readers asked if, after adoration, it were sufficient to place a cloth over the monstrance or draw a wooden screen before the altar in order to reserve the Blessed Sacrament.

For example, an English reader writes: «I was told that it was OK for the door to the Blessed Sacrament chapel to be left ajar as no one is in room, when others are still in the building even if they are not aware of the Presence in chapel. Is it OK for a cloth to be placed over the monstrance while alone and the next person to uncover it when the building is empty? I myself am not happy with these ideas and would like some advice and, if I am right, a document or suchlike that I can show so this will not happen.»

According to «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» No. 131:

«Apart from the prescriptions of canon 934 §§ 1, it is forbidden to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in a place that is not subject in a secure way to the authority of the diocesan Bishop, or where there is a danger of profanation. Where such is the case, the diocesan Bishop should immediately revoke any permission for reservation of the Eucharist that may already have been granted.»

Note this norm refers to the security of the tabernacle, which is generally locked and bolted or otherwise fixed in place so that even if thieves were to enter the building they could not easily access the tabernacle or remove it entirely.

If this is true of the tabernacle, it should be clear that it is totally insufficient to simply cover or hide the monstrance. Once adoration is over, the Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a secure tabernacle.

Regarding leaving the Blessed Sacrament alone during exposition, once more «Redemptionis Sacramentum» is clear, in No. 138:

«Still, the Most Holy Sacrament, when exposed, must never be left unattended even for the briefest space of time. It should therefore be arranged that at least some of the faithful always be present at fixed times, even if they take alternating turns.»

Another question concerned the number of candles to be used during adoration.

Four or six candles may be used although widespread custom allows for more. There are no special norms, such as the proportion of wax, regarding the makeup of candles for adoration. Those candles should follow the name general requirements as for altar candles.

Finally, a California reader poses the following question: «We have just begun perpetual adoration in our parish and are extremely grateful to our pastor for allowing us the opportunity to adore Our Lord 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My only concern was the presence of a locked tabernacle that contains consecrated hosts off to the side, but inside the small room where Jesus is exposed on the altar in the monstrance. The extraordinary ministers of Communion are now being instructed to enter into the small chapel for consecrated hosts to bring to their homebound. I was just wondering if the disturbance of them coming in to retrieve the Sacred Hosts somehow takes away from our focus on Jesus on the altar and if this is allowable according to the Church’s specifications? I am more concerned with the respect and reverence given to the Blessed Sacrament … and not so much for the convenience of the homebound ministers. Any direction would be greatly appreciated and humbly accepted.»

While unaware of the structure of the church in question, I would suppose that the pastor is seeking to be faithful to the general liturgical norm that there not be more than one tabernacle or Eucharistic chapel.

I am sure that any «disturbance» caused by the entrance of the extraordinary ministers of Communion would be momentary and would show no disrespect to the Blessed Sacrament. After all, the primary purpose of Eucharistic reservation is to be able to bring Communion to the sick.

Indeed, it could also serve as a reminder and an opportunity for the adorers to unite their thoughts and prayers to those members of the community who, due to illness, are unable to avail of the privilege of perpetual adoration.

A reader from Kalgoorlie, Australia, asked what is the proper act of reverence for those who are physically unable to make a genuflection.

This is a difficulty experienced even by young people who have suffered sports injuries, and in this case the general principle «ad impossibilia nemo tenetur» (the impossible obliges nobody) is applied.

It is enough for such people to do whatever act they are capable of: a deep bow; slowly going down on the knee in a pew; or, if even this is impossible, fulfilling the essential act of adoration which is an interior and spiritual movement of which the external gesture is an expression.

Our late great Holy Father John Paul
II exemplified this reverence, often pushing himself to heroic sacrifices in kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. Toward the end, when even this was impossible, he adored with his eyes and his heart.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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