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Bells and Communion

And the Meaning Behind ‘Mysterium Fidei’

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

 Q: I have two unrelated questions: 1) Can you advise when the bell is to be rung before Communion, and why? I thought I read somewhere that it signals the completion of the Sacrifice after the priest consumes the Precious Blood, but others have told me that it signals to the congregation that they are to say the Communion antiphon. 2) I edit a monthly Catholic newsletter and have received a letter from a reader asking about the meaning of the proclamations of the Mystery of Faith. The reader states that in the Latin Mass, it was a proclamation of the transubstantiation, but in the Novus Ordo, all four choices are proclamations that all mainstream Christians believe; that is, it doesn’t express our specific Catholic belief in the Real Presence. You mention something about this in an article of December 14, 2010, about singing at the elevation. From another standpoint, I think that introducing the phrase “Come let us adore him!” in fact unwittingly reduces the scope of the Eucharistic mystery. By concentrating only on the Real Presence, this expression leaves out the full reality of the Mass as a memorial making present the entire salvific mystery that is, in a way, the latest moment in salvation history. In fact, this reality is better expressed by the usual acclamations after the consecration which ties the Eucharistic mystery of faith to the Passion, Resurrection and Second Coming. Do you have anything more I could offer this reader? — J.K., Morwell, Victoria, Australia

A: First, with respect to bells: This is explicitly foreseen in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 150, which states: “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. Nothing whatsoever is said regarding a bell before communion.

 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 and might 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.

 With the advent of polyphonic Masses in which the Sanctus – Benedictus was sung during the recitation of the canon (the Sanctus up to the first “Hosana in excelsis” before the consecration, the Benedictus afterward), the bell also served as a signal to the choir to remain in silence during the consecration.

 For similar practical motives, the use of the bell became necessary, although there was much variation in Europe about when they were rung, such as at the Sanctus and before communion. Traditionally bells were never rung at the papal liturgy at St. Peter’s in Rome at the consecration. However, ringing a bell at the consecration was introduced somewhere toward the middle of St. John Paul II’s pontificate, for I remember assisting at some Masses where it was not yet used.

 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.

 With respect to the correct interpretation of “Mysterium fidei” and its subsequent acclamations I use in part what I wrote to a similar query on December 22, 2015, with some additions.

 In the Latin missal, and in most English missals, there are three formulas for this acclamation. In Ireland, the phrase “My Lord and my God” is also approved for liturgical use by the Holy See. Nobody should use unauthorized texts at Mass.

 Using a text like “Come let us adore Him” actually limits the scope of the acclamation and weakens its theological value.

 The words “Mysterium fidei,” although not found in the New Testament institution narratives, form part of the formula of consecration in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite. The text of the consecration of the chalice in the extraordinary form, in an unofficial translation, says:

 “Take this all of you and drink it: For this is the chalice of My blood, of the new and eternal covenant: the mystery of faith: which will be shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. As often as you shall do these things, you shall do them in remembrance of me.”

 Eminent Benedictine scholar Dom Cassian Folsom (“Mysterium Fidei and St. Leo the Great,” Ecclesia Orans 15 (1998) 289-302) convincingly argues that the expression was inserted into the canon by Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) to combat the Manicheans who denied the goodness of material things and especially rejected partaking of the chalice which they associated with darkness. This insertion was probably made in the years 443-444 as many Manicheans took refuge in Rome following the Vandal invasion of Roman North Africa.

 For similar motives, the Pope added the expression “a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim,” to the reference to Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine and is also the author of several other additions to the Roman Canon.

 Several centuries later, when the text’s origin had been totally obscured, this expression was indeed interpreted as being important in combating certain errors regarding the Real Presence, especially by clerics. Thus Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) wrote that:

 “The expression ‘Mystery of faith’ is used because here what is believed differs from what is seen, and what is seen differs from what is believed. For what is seen is the appearance of bread and wine and what is believed is the reality of the flesh and blood of Christ and the power of unity and love” (Denzinger 782).

 Most scholars, however, did not interpret it in this way, and in fact many considered the text mysterious. For example, in 1948 the great Jesuit liturgist, J.A. Jungmann gives an overview of theories regarding the text but concludes that “Regarding the meaning of the words ‘mysterium fidei,’ there is absolutely no agreement… How or when or why this insertion was made, or what external event occasioned it, cannot readily be ascertained.”

 Therefore the opinion that “Mysterium fidei” in the extraordinary form refers primarily to Christ’s real presence cannot be upheld, although this interpretation is included in the expression along with other mysteries of the Catholic faith.

 After the Second Vatican Council, with the introduction of new Eucharistic Prayers and the desire to have a single, biblically based formula for the consecration in all four, Pope St. Paul VI decided to remove the words from the formula of consecration and gave them their present function as an introduction to an acclamation of the faithful. This practice was traditional in some Eastern Churches, especially the Liturgy of St. James, but constituted a novelty in the Roman rite. The acclamations are:

 — “We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection, until you come again.”

 — “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again.”

 — “Save us, Savior of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free.”

 All of the acclamations, in the tradition of the Liturgy of St. James, are directed toward Christ rather than to the Father and make reference to the saving action of his death and resurrection and look forward to the Second Coming.

 The first two options are derived from 1 Corinthians 11:26 — “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” The third option seems to be based upon John 4:42 when the woman who met Jesus at the well is told by her fellow Samaritans, “We know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

 In the present form, although the proclamation includes faith in the Real Presence it is, in a way, seen as an invitation to the faithful to respond to all that is implied by Christ’s command to “do this in memory of me.”

 In this way, they go to the root of the mystery of the Mass as a holy and living sacrifice and stress the inseparable bond of the passion and the last supper in light of the need of Christians to persevere in the faith regarding the whole paschal mystery of Christ’s death resurrection and ascension into heaven.

 There is also a mention of Christ’s second coming in glory to judge the world, which in a way reminds us that the Eucharist is also the bread of life that nurtures us on our journey to the definitive goal of being with him forever.

 Compared with this, “Come let us adore him,” while probably inspired by the hymn “Adeste Fidelis,” is far less rich and complete.

 The same could also be said, perhaps, for the “My Lord and my God” which has been approved for Ireland. Perhaps if one places the text in its original context of St. Thomas’ proclamation of faith in the divinity of the risen Christ, it captures some of the richness of the other acclamations. It is more likely, however, to be interpreted as referring exclusively to faith in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacred species and tends to leave out the other aspects of the Mass considered by the original acclamations.

 * * *

 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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