Substituting Bells in Advent

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: I wish to find out in the celebration of Mass especially during the season of Advent if it is forbidden to ring bells during consecration as it is done during ordinary time. I have observed that every successive year during this time of Advent, bells are done away with. But at the same time, wooden small planks shaped in form of cubes are strewn together and are used as bells during consecration. Is this substitution OK? If so, why discontinue with the use of bells — since the wooden planks make as much “noise” as the ordinary bells. What does canon law say about substitution? In the same vein, the use of instruments is not allowed during this same period. Is this the practice in the universal Church? — E.C., Kabwe, Zambia

A: With respect to the use of the organ and other instruments during Advent, we restate in part what we wrote in an answer 10 years ago:

“There are several documents regarding this theme. The 1967 instruction on liturgical music, ‘Musicam Sacram,’ addresses the question of the organ and other instruments in Nos. 62-67. To wit:

“62. Musical instruments either accompanying the singing or played alone can add a great deal to liturgical celebrations.

“The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument that adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up the spirit to God and to higher things.

“But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority. … This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, are in accord with the dignity of the place of worship, and truly contribute to the uplifting of the faithful.

“63. One criterion for accepting and using musical instruments is the genius and tradition of the particular peoples. At the same time, however, instruments that are generally associated and used only with worldly music are to be absolutely barred from liturgical services and religious devotions. All musical instruments accepted for divine worship must be played in such a way as to meet the requirements of a liturgical service and to contribute to the beauty of worship and the building up of the faithful.

“64. Musical instruments as the accompaniment for singing have the power to support the voice, to facilitate participation, and to intensify the unity of the worshipping assembly. But their playing is not to drown out the voice so that the texts cannot be easily heard. Instruments are to be silent during any part sung by the priest or ministers by reason of their function.

“65. […] Solo playing (of the organ or other approved instruments) is allowed at the beginning of Mass, prior to the priest’s reaching the altar, at the presentation of the gifts, at the communion, and at the end of Mass.

“66. Solo playing of musical instruments is forbidden during Advent, Lent, the Easter triduum, and at services and Masses for the dead.

“67. It is, of course, imperative that organists and other musicians be accomplished enough to play properly. But in addition they must have a deep and thorough knowledge of the significance of the liturgy. That is required in order that even their improvisations will truly enhance the celebration in accord with the genuine character of each of its parts and will assist the participation of the faithful.”

According to this document, therefore, solo playing of the organ is prohibited during Advent.

However, while the above criteria are substantially still valid, there appears to be a small opening to solo playing during Advent in the 2001 General Instruction of the Roman Missal which itself quotes from the norms given in the 1984 Ceremonial of Bishops.

No. 313 says: “In Advent the organ and other musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season’s character and does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.

“In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only to support the singing. Exceptions are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.”

Thus, the express prohibition of solo playing of the organ found in “Musicam Sacram” is now limited to the Lenten season, while during Advent it now appears possible to do so, albeit with moderation and selecting appropriate music.

It is true that neither the Ceremonial of Bishops nor the GIRM, No. 66, explicitly derogates or abolishes the earlier law. However, since Church documents usually quote exactly earlier documents, small changes in emphasis are often quite significant and can reflect an evolution in the norms even when earlier laws are not specifically abolished. I think, therefore, that this is a clear change of emphasis with respect to the earlier document, for the omission of any mention of using the organ only to support singing during Advent is certainly not accidental.

The probable reason for this is that Advent is no longer officially included among the penitential seasons.

According to the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 41, the organ and musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season’s character of joyful expectancy but in a way that does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.

Certainly there are elements that resemble the Lenten penitential season (violet vestments, omission of the Gloria, etc.). These are justified by Advent’s focus on spiritual preparation for Christ’s coming by recalling the mysteries of salvation history as well as the liturgy’s frequent eschatological allusions to the “last things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

According to No. 39 of the Introduction to the Roman Calendar: “Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.”

The Advent season developed in the Roman Rite during the sixth century and always contained these two elements, although sometimes one element was stressed more than the other until the season reached more or less its present form.

The substitution of wooden clappers for bells during Advent would seem to be a local custom and is not mandated in liturgical law. The only occasions when universal law foresees the possibility of such clappers during the elevation would be after the Gloria for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, after which no bells are rung until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil.

In some places the use of clappers was extended by local custom during all of Lent and, as appears here, also to Advent. There is no good liturgical reason to maintain the substitution, and bells may be rung throughout Advent. However, if the practice is longstanding and has attained the status of a legal custom, it may also be continued.

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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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