The Altar Bell: Part 1
Louis J. Tofari
Have you ever considered why a small bell is rung near the altar at certain times during Mass? If you think about when it is used, you would probably conclude (correctly) that it is rung to announce a significant sacred moment.
As we shall see shortly, the altar bell is actually derived from the belfry’s large bell and although the latter symbolizes “Vox Domini in virtue, vox Domini in magnificentia,” nevertheless, no such symbolism is associated with the small bell as it serves only a practical purpose.
As with every other aspect of the sacred liturgy, the Church wants to ensure that whatever is employed at the altar is dignified and edifying, a matter that is especially important for something as potentially distracting as a bell.
An example of a small, single-tongued hand bell held in a balanced position
So in this two-part article we will briefly review not only how and when it should be rung, but even what type of bell should be used. First though, a little history on the altar bell.
The introduction of the altar bell during Mass
You might be surprised to learn that an altar bell was not always used during Mass. Its use did not originate in the Western Church, until the late 12th century when another practice was introduced: the Elevation of the newly-consecrated Sacred Host.
At first, the belfry’s large bell was rung to alert those outside the church, thus allowing those within earshot to momentarily cease their activities and adore. Eventually, the belfry’s bell was replaced by a small one at the altar to warn those inside the church. First practiced in northern Europe, it would take another 200 years before this custom was adopted in Rome; in fact, the bell was not even mentioned in the Missale Romanum until 1604 by Pope Clement VIII, and then only for the Sanctus and Elevations.
The correct type of bell
So what kind of bell should be used at the altar? The Roman Missal gives the answer in its Rubricae Generales section using the term, “parva campanula,” which J.B. O’Connell further explains:
What the rubrics envisage is a small, single-tongued bell, and the correct kind of bell is a simple hand-bell, in silver or bronze, with one tongue [as seen above]. It ought to have a good tone, and, for a large church, a robust one. Chiming bells, a carillon—used in some places since the 15th century—are not forbidden, but are less correct and cause distraction...
Dom Matthew Britt adds:
A properly-constructed carillon set exhibiting a single tongue in each bell
Nothing can equal in appropriateness a simple, single, sweet-toned bell. Bishop Van der Stappen would tolerate a correctly tuned chime of three or four small bells, but he hastens to add that the single bell prescribed by the rubrics is preferable.
As to what is unsuitable for an altar bell, here a few quotes will suffice, starting again with J.B. O’Connell, who begins “Indian gongs are not allowed.” Very Rev. Laurence O’Connell continues, “[A] gong is understood by the Congregation [of Rites] as a cymbal or basinlike instrument affixed to a wooden shaft,” and Britt concludes:
But no less objectionable are chimes of plates or tubes mounted on a board, and so-called electric altar chimes which consist of tubes operated from a keyboard sunk in the altar step. Such devices savor of the theatre, not of the sanctuary.
The placement of the altar bell in the sanctuary
As indicated by the Missale Romanum and numerous rubrical authors, the bell should be kept on the credence, not on the altar step, when unemployed during Mass.
During Low Mass, the acolyte brings the bell to the foot from the credence after the Lavabo, and returns it to the credence after the celebrant consumes the Sacred Host. The bell is also carried up to the predella in preparation for the Consecration. Whenever the bell is carried, it should be held balanced to prevent any unnecessary rings.
How to ring the bell
Considering the careful regard given to the altar bell’s construction, the server should remember the equally important duty of ringing it in a dignified and edifying manner. The correct method of ringing the bell is with an arced up-down motion, not side-to-side. The Altar Servers Handbook of the Archconfraternity of St. Stephen briefly describes how this is done:
The bell is rung with the right hand as follows: grasp firmly the handle of the bell, then raise and immediately lower it so as to sound two distinct strokes at each time of ringing.
It must also be mentioned that the wrist and forearm should be locked in place, and thus only the shoulder joint should pivot to make an inverse arc with the bell—the arc being kept below the level of the upper chest.
If you tend to make triple rings this is due to ringing the bell jerkily or pitching the arc too steeply.
Finally, take care to ring the bell smoothly and lightly, and when ringing a set of strokes (as for the Sanctus) keep them spaced evenly apart. Be also sure to let the sound die out naturally before you put the bell down (noiselessly).
Listen to the audio clip to hear a properly rung set of three rings
So to summarize the complete action of ringing the altar bell:
lift the bell carefully,
hold it firmly by the handle and away from your body with your arm slightly crooked,
move just your upper arm in a smooth inverse arc to make a clear and distinct double ring,
let the sound die out,
noiselessly put down the bell.
With a little practice, the skill of ringing the bell properly will come easy.
1 “The voice of the Lord is in power; the voice of the Lord in magnificence” (Psalm 28, 4) as quoted in the Pontificale Romanum for blessing a large bell.
2 In fact, as noted by Rev. J.B. O’Connell, “The sacring bell—unlike the large church bell—is not blessed.” Church Building and Furnishing: The Church’s Way (University of Notre Dame Press, 1955), p 231.
3 I.e., the Roman Mass and its Latin Rite derivatives such as the Dominican, Gallican and Sarum Rites.
4 Previously the only elevation occurred during the Per ipsum (Minor Elevation). The desire of the faithful to see the Host introduced the major Elevation of the Host, and later, the Precious Blood. Cf. the article by Fr. Herbert Thurston, S.J. on “The Elevation” published in The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Co., 1913).
5 E.g., France, Belgium and Germany.
6 Via the papal bull, Cum sanctissimum, which introduced another missal reform in which some of the rubrics were updated.
7 Hence it was missing from the rubrics of the reformed and codified Roman Missal promulgated by Pope St. Pius V’s papal bull, Quo Primum (1570). For more historical information cf. p 130 of Peter F. Anson’s Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing (Bruce, 1948) and Thurston’s article on “Bells” published in The Catholic Encyclopedia.
8 N. 528.
9 “A small bell.”
10 This refers to the connected set of bells commonly used today. Unfortunately for nearly a century, liturgical ware manufacturers have been producing rubrically-incorrect carillon bells containing several tongues in each bell to enable them to be rung improperly from side-to-side (cf. ff 24 below). Such bells are also liturgically unsuitable as they disturbingly ring merely by moving them. However, such carillons can be converted to conform to the rubrics by removing the extra tongues and hanging a single tongue in each bell’s center suspended either by a wire hanger or chain.
11 Church Building and Furnishing: The Church’s Way (University of Notre Dame Press, 1955), p 231. He repeats this in The Celebration of Mass: A Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal (Bruce, 1964—for 1962 Missale Romanum—Preserving Christian Publications reprint, 2006) on p 160.
12 How to Serve in Simple, Solemn and Pontifical Functions (Bruce, 1934—TAN Books reprint, 2008), p 24. The quote is concluded with ff 38, citing p 116 from volume III of Bishop Joseph Van der Stappen’s book, Sacra Liturgia (Dessain, 1911) and an article he published in the June 1926 issue of the American ecclesiastical magazine, Emmanuel (published by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament).
13 Church Building and Furnishing, p 231 citing SRC 4000-3. The same can be found in The Celebration of Mass, p 160.
14 The Book of Ceremonies (Bruce, 1956), p 18, ff 77.
15 Britt, p 24.
16 Rubricæ Generales, n. 528, “Ad latus epistolæ, super mensa ad hoc præparata… necnon parva campanula….”
17 E.g., L. O’Connell, p 17; J.B. O’Connell (The Celebration of Mass), pp 159-160; The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, Rev. Adrian Fortescue (Burns & Oates, 1962—St. Austin’s Abbey Press reprint, 1996), p 37; Ceremonial for the Use of the Catholic Churches in the United States of America (aka, Baltimore Ceremonial), composed by Bishop Joseph Rosati, C.M. (1829)—revised by Rev. W. Carroll Milholland, S.S. (H.L. Kilner, 1926), p 2; et al.
18 On an ample-sized credence, the left-hand, front corner is a practical placement as it allows the first acolyte (situated on the left side of the credence during the Offertory and Lavabo with the second acolyte on the right) to easily pick up the bell. If using a carillon set of bells, situate the largest bell closest to the front of the credence, as this will enable the server to more easily carry the bells balanced.
19 Peter Anson, p 130: “There is no reason to leave the bell on the altar steps. When not actually in use it is better to keep it on the credence table.”
20 At High or Solemn Mass, the bell is typically rung at the credence.
21 J.B. O’Connell in The Celebration of Mass, pp 159-160 and 356; it is presumed by all others in light of ff 16 and 17 above.
22 Then, either the Communion plate is retrieved, or if there are no communicants, the cruets for the ablutions.
23 Ibid, p 359. He should not place it on the predella’s edge before ascending, as this looks indecorous and is completely unnecessary when the bell is carried balanced.
24 A single hand bell is held level by crooking the arm slightly, while a set of bells by balancing the handle under the index finger (as mentioned in ff 18, the largest should be positioned nearest the body).
25 This latter method (even when lightly rung) produces a mangled sound resembling a telephone or alarm bell, which is liturgically unbecoming and forms a distraction to both the celebrant and faithful. A fortiori, a properly constructed set of bells is practically impossible to ring in such a fashion.
26 Pp 9 and 13-28 (1962 edition—Society of St. Pius X reprint, 2002). This double-ring manner is also confirmed by Britt, p 24 (“A single stroke[*] of the bell is preferable to a prolonged ringing”) [*he is referring to a single up-down motion, hence a double-ring, or as the Guild’s handbook states, “a double stroke” of the bell’s tongue], and Msgr. Pio Martinucci in Manuale Sacrarum Caeremoniarum (L. Cecchini, 1879), Vol I, p 139. It is presumed by all others per ff 10 and 25 above.
27 Nearly all rubricians make this point.
28 E.g., ding-ding—ding-ding—ding-ding. Britt, p 24: “…Thus, at the Sanctus three distinct strokes, not too close together, are given.”