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On Bells

Peregrinus Goes Abroad

Part 1: See America First; Chapter 10


“Honk, honk,” said the Liturgiologist’s Buck. To which the Antiquary’s Swerve replied with a sound which can best be transliterated as “Wank” with the accent on the penult! Just why “honk” has become the accepted sign manual of an automobile horn is a matter of history, reaching back to that early day when such horns were pneumatic, attached to the steering wheel, and sounded by pressure on a rubber bulb. Nowadays they are electric contraptions, of varying notes, all disagreeable and startling, as, indeed, they are doubtless mean to be.


Fr. Torculus has two on his machine, and delights in sounding both when he wants to pass a slower car on the road; and most cars are slower, and whether they are or not, Fr. Torculus insists on passing them. So he sounds first one horn and then the other, and, as he says, gets a great kick from seeing the startled expression on the face of the driver of the other car when but one machine passes when two are expected to pass!


After which detour we return to the Rectory drive of St. Inveteratus, Centerville, where the visiting Liturgiologist has arrived just in time to prevent, temporarily, the departure of the Antiquary.


“I was just going in to town to get a ‘Sanctus Bell,’” said the Antiquary. “We have a gong, but I seem to remember you once wrote something about gongs being forbidden.”


“If I didn’t, I should have, and I will,” replied the Liturgiologist. “For the tribe of gongs seems on the increase, now that these new electric affairs are coming into vogue to the great delight of the altar boys who love to press buttons, even when the celebrant uncovers the chalice at the Offertory, though no liturgical book (that I’m aware of) prescribes the ringing of a bell at that point in Holy Mass.”


“Well, there’s no prescription for sounding a bell at the Domine non sum dignus, yet the practice is all but universal,” answered the Antiquary.


“The point is well taken, Pere, but not ad rem,” said the Liturgiologist with a smile. “We were discussing, or about to discuss, what to ring during Holy Mass, not when to ring it! Now the S.R.C. (number 4,000) certainly does forbid gongs, at least some sorts of gongs. Whether this applies to chimes, tubular and otherwise, to those mushroom-shaped affairs one sees in shop windows (and in far too many churches) or even to the very artistic groups of bells tuned to harmonize after a fashion, is a matter of positive precept, and a little deduction.”


“Precept and deduct,” was the Antiquary’s resigned murmur, as he settled back in his big porch chair and lighted his pipe.


“Well, since you ask for it”—the Liturgiologist’s voice was not lacking in a note of guile—“The missal directs by rubric the sounding of a “parva campanula” at the Sanctus and both Elevations (not at any other point in the celebration of Holy Mass). Now campanula is diminutive of bell, as is tintinnabulum, the word used in the Ceremonial of Bishops.


There need be no question as to what precisely the writers of these directions meant. There is, apparently, no Latin equivalent for the word “gong” so that when the Archbishop of Mexico asked the S.R.C. in 1898 for a ruling on this matter of bells, he had to describe the instrument we call a gong as “cymbalum dictum Indorum Orientalium quod est ad modum magni catini semipendentis ab hasta lignea, et percussum ad Acolytho sonum elicit.”


One might think that description applies only to a sort of Chinese temple gong, were it not that the positive legislation of the rubrics makes it clear that the “little bell” is no sort of a gong, sounded by a mallet or stick, but a real bell, sounded by its own tongue when shaken by the ringer.”


“Most didactic and particular, Pere,” admitted the Antiquary, still in a low voice, as if holding something in reserve.


“Very well then, may we not say with an author approved of by no less a liturgical master than the late Cardinal Vaughan:


The Church orders the use of a small bell. It is not fitting nor seemly to substitute gongs of any sort, and it is forbidden to use Indian gongs.


“Indeed, all competent authorities are unanimous in their condemnation of gongs of any sort, which may, nowadays, be taken to include electrically-operated tubular chimes. Even the compound instrument of three or four little bells is disapproved of.[1] The simple, single little hand bell is the only thing regarded as correct.”


“But what about the effect—?” began the Antiquary.


“Need we worry ourselves about that?” cut in the Liturgiologist. “The Church commands a certain thing. It may not seem to us so solemn and impressive as the deep mysterious tones of a nickel-plated gas pipe concealed in the organ case, but it is evidently what the Church wants, and the deep mysterious tones of the gong are not. In the long run all the liturgical prescriptions of the Church are really the best suited to the furtherance of such religious emotions as it is desired to produce. It is the simple things that strike the deepest, the most restrained effects that are most artistic, if you want to go into the psychology of the thing.”


“I don’t, Pere, honestly, I don’t” said the Antiquary softly. “What I really want to do is to go in to Catalogus’s and buy a small hand bell (if they have one for sale, which I doubt).”


“Very well, then, save gas and ride with me,” said the Liturgiologist.


“Thanks, I’ll save my nerves and ride with myself,” said the Antiquary.



1 The use of a carillon set of bells is actually tolerated. That being said, each bell should only have one tong each, and not several, which does allow the bell to be ring in a clear and dignified up-down manner, and causes the bells to sound at the slightest touch; see this article for further details.

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