It is not uncommon to hear it suggested that the use of the Sanctus bells in the Mass is today either obsolete or even prohibited. It is frequently argued that with the Mass now prayed in the vernacular and with the celebrant facing the congregation the once auditory signal to focus the faithful’s attention on the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy is redundant. Certainly in many parish churches the 800 year old custom of ringing bells at the epiclesis (or invocation of the Holy Spirit) in particular, has all but disappeared.
Still, the purpose of the bells at that moment when our Lord is made truly present in the species of bread and wine is not merely to elicit attention from the faithful, but signals joyous praise and thanksgiving at the action of the Holy Spirit. And, far from being excluded from the liturgy, the recently revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal continues to assert the practice. (GIRM 150)
In commending the practice, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has noted with regard to religious communities in particular: “… 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.” But the Congregation goes on to assert the opposite may be presumed with regard a parish church noting “a different level of liturgical and religious education and where often people who are visitors or are not regular churchgoers take part.”
The Catechism teaches that the mission of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy of the Church is to prepare the assembly to encounter Christ; to recall and manifest Christ to the faith of the assembly; to make the saving work of Christ present and active by his transforming power; and to make the gift of communion bear fruit in the Church (CCC1112).
Where am I headed with all this you ask? Lex orandi, lex credendi - the way we worship reflects what we believe.
The third person of the Blessed Trinity is sometimes referred to as “the forgotten” member of the Godhead. Pentecost is an opportunity to ask ourselves what our parish liturgy says about our belief in the Holy Spirit? Are we alive to His action in the liturgy and how do we honour Him?
Obviously, the use of bells is not necessary for the validity of the sacrament but properly used they can be a powerful devotional aid in our liturgy. Ringing them at the epiclesis can underscore the miracle that takes place upon the altar through the direct action of the third person of the Blessed Trinity.
By Michael McKenna, Director, Office of Liturgy