Bells at Mass
by Paul Turner

When a priest shows the consecrated bread and the chalice to the people, the server may ring a bell or the server may not ring a bell. It's an option. Some Catholic communities exercise it; others do not.
Bells have harmonized with church life since the sixth century, when they first summoned worshipers to church before the invention of beeping wristwatches. In the early 13th century, the faithful were going to communion so infrequently that the church had to require it once a year. When they attended Mass, the faithful wanted to see the host. The priest, presiding with his back to the people, lifted the host during the recitation of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper so that the faithful who would not receive it could adore it. During the same century, the server started ringing the bell to let the people know the elevation had come.
Today when the priest shows the consecrated bread and cup to the people, the ringing of the bell is optional. We approach the eucharistic prayer differently today than we did in the 13th century. The differences are spiritual, practical, and theological. First, at that time people came to Mass primarily for adoration, not for eucharistic communion. So the elevation of the host and chalice became the central feature of Sunday worship. Today we emphasize the importance of everyone's participation in the Eucharist. Next, people faced a practical problem. They could not physically see what they had come to adore unless the priest held it aloft. Some parishes put a dark colored cloth behind the altar so people could see the host more clearly during the elevation. The bells drew people's attention to actions which otherwise excluded them. Today we pay attention to the entire eucharistic prayer.
Finally, we have a more expansive theology of the eucharistic prayer today. We focus less on the "moment of consecration" and more on the consecratory power of the entire eucharistic prayer, from preface dialogue to amen.
Consequently, the bells during the eucharistic prayer no longer serve the purpose they did when they were introduced. They are permitted, but an assembly which prays attentively at Mass will not need them.

Copyright © 1998, Resource Publications, Inc. 160 E. Virginia St. #290, San Jose, CA 95112, (408) 286-8505. This article may not be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher.  For permission e-mail
Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, MO, holds a doctorate in sacramental theology from Sant' Anselmo University in Rome.