The Altar Bell: Part 2
Louis J. Tofari
In the first part of this article, we covered the altar bell, its history, proper construction and method for ringing it. In this second part, we will address when and how many times the bell is rung at each instance. The slide gallery below also provides some helpful tips for the acolyte on when he should pick up the altar bell in preparation to ring it before each action.
When and how many rings for each occasion developed over time, so to better understand the customs observed in English-speaking countries, let us first examine the Roman practice as described in the Ritus servandus, a rubrical section of the Missale Romanum.
The Roman practice
Part 2 details when and how many times the altar bell should be rung at Mass
Previously we learned that the altar bell was initially rung for just the Elevations, then later also for the Sanctus. Eventually this practice became the standard for churches in Rome, and consequently was codified in the rubrics of the Roman Missal. This continued to be the Roman custom up until the 20th century as attested by Italian rubricians who instructed the acolyte to return the bell to the credence immediately after the Elevations.
The custom in English-speaking countries
In addition to the Missale Romanum’s rubrical prescriptions for when the bell is rung during the Roman Mass, there are particular customs in the various regions of the Latin Rite world that equally have force of law.
This liturgical principle and spirit of praxis is embodied and confirmed by rubricians who are unanimous that the legitimate variants of ringing the bell should be observed according to the local custom.
In the English-speaking countries of the United States and British Commonwealth, the customs for ringing the altar bell are nearly identical, and these regions have had a long-established and sanctioned practice of ringing the altar bell additionally for the Hanc igitur and Domine non sum dignus.
As a side note, both of these practices were added to the Ritus servandus section of the 1962 edition of the Missale Romanum, and thus may now be universally observed.
Now let us examine each instance and the reason for ringing the bell during the Roman Mass as should be practiced in English-speaking countries.
The bell is rung three times at this moment to announce the beginning of the most sacred part of the Mass, the Canon.
As the celebrant says “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus…,” the bell should be evenly rung thrice in immediate succession.
The custom of ringing the bell at this point is to alert the faithful that the moment of Consecration is shortly approaching. During this prayer, the celebrant places his outstretched hands over the oblations (the host and chalice) asking God to accept them.
As the priest does this action, the bell is rung once.
Listen to the audio clip to hear a set of 3 rings as done for the Sanctus
Listen to the audio clip to hear how the altar bell is rung for the Hanc igitur
The bell is rung during this most climatic point of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to draw the faithful’s attention to the elevations of the consecrated Host and Precious Blood, and thus look upon and adore their Eucharistic Lord.
The missal rubric describes the bell to be rung “ter ad unamquamque elevationem…” or “thrice at each elevation”. L. O’Connell describes how the acolyte does this in practice:
Most authors have him ring the bell once at the genuflection before the elevation, once at the elevation, and once at the genuflection after the elevation. This is almost the universal practice.
Listen to the audio clip to hear how the altar bell is rung for the Consecration
This 1-1-1 method was also “almost the universal practice” in English-speaking countries, such as the United States and those of the British Commonwealth, which also tend to conform to the Roman (or universal) customs.
Domine non sum dignus (of the celebrant)
The English-language rubricians (and now also the missal rubrics) speak of ringing the bell shortly after the Agnus Dei to alert communicants to prepare for Holy Communion. Britt also mentions that this ringing of the bell “calls attention to one of the principal parts of the Mass”, that is the consumption of the sacrificial Species (Host and Precious Blood) through the celebrant’s Communion.
In both English-speaking countries, the custom of ringing the bell before the Communion of the faithful is a common practice, though in slightly different ways.
Here in the United States the acolyte rings the bell once each time after the celebrant says aloud “Domine non sum dignus”, that is, for a total of three rings.
Listen to the audio clip to hear how the altar bell is rung for the Domine non sum dignus
As denoted by the Archconfraternity of St. Stephen’s Handbook, this is also customary in the British Commonwealth, although another of method of making only a single ring also exists.
So to conclude, here is a summary of when and how many times the altar bell should be rung in English-speaking countries:
Sanctus: three times in succession after the celebrant begins this prayer
Hanc igitur: once as the priest outstretches his hands over the oblations
Elevations: once as the celebrant genuflects, once at the elevation, and once as the celebrant genuflects again (so three times total for each Consecration action of the Host and Precious Blood)
Domine non sum dignus: once after each time the priest says “Domine non sum dignus” (so three times total)
In the next and final segment to this article on the altar bell, we will discuss some other usages of the altar bell and also when it should not be rung. We will also speak about the use of the crotalus.
1 The full title of this missal section is Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae.
2 The term "Elevations" is commonly used by rubricians to refer to the entire Consecration action. That is, of both the raising of the Sacred Species and the genuflections made before and after each of Their separate elevations.
3 In Ritus servandus, VII, 8 and VIII, 6, also in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum, vol. I, XXIX, 6.
4 Cf. Martinucci, Manuale Sacrarum Caeremoniarum, vol I, p 139, Rev. Petrus De Amicis, CM, Caeremoniale Parochorum (I. Artero, 1910), p 147, and Giuseppe Baldeschi, CM, Esposizione delle Sacre Cerimonie (Desclee, 1931), pp 75 and 76.
5 As these customs enjoy force of law from the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities (e.g., a local synod of bishops, such as for the States the Baltimore Councils, or the Westminster Synod in Great Britain), they should continue to be observed in their affected areas.
6 E.g., Le Vavasseur, Haegy and Stercky, Manuel de Liturgie et Ceremonial Selon le Rit Romain (1940—reprinted by SSPX), vol I, p 596, ff 2.
7 The customs observed in the United States are denoted by several sources, such as the Ceremonial for the Use of the Catholic Churches in the United States of America—aka, The Baltimore Ceremonial (H.L. Kilner, 1926), Wapelhorst (Compendium Sacrae Liturgiae, Benziger, 1934), Dom Matthew Britt (How to Serve in Simple, Solemn, and Pontifical Functions; 1934—reprinted by TAN Books, 2008) and L. O’Connell (The Book of Ceremonies; Bruce, 1956).
8 E.g., Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa. In the British Commonwealth and Ireland the primary sources are Fortescue and J.B. O’Connell. Attention should also be given to The Altar Servers’ Handbook of the Archconfraternity of St. Stephen, which originated in London at Westminster Cathedral.
9 For example, concerning the sanctioned custom in America of ringing the bell at the Hanc igitur, L. O’Connell on p 160 refers to Wapelhorst who in turn on p 156 cites SRC 4377 (which J.B. O’Connell also applies to the Great Britain on p 359 in The Celebration of Mass: A Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal; Bruce, 1964). Of course, this is also mentioned by other American rubrical manuals such as The Baltimore Ceremonial (p 60; n. 5: “It is the custom here to ring the bell at the Hanc igitur”) and by Britt. As for the Domine non sum dignus, the SRC’s rescript 5224-9 states that this may be done where customary. This has been further augmented by the added rubrics in the 1962 edition of the Missale Romanum as outlined below in footnote 10.
10 As cited from the Ritus servandus section, VIII, 6 for the Hanc igitur (Minister paulo ante Consecrationem campanulae signo fideles moneat) and at X, 6 for the Domine non sum dignus (Si qui sunt communicandi in Missa, paulo antea ministrans campanulae signo eos moneat).
11 An important point to remember is that Pope St. Pius X granted an indulgence of seven years to those who devotedly say while looking at the elevated Host “My Lord and My God” (or in Latin, “Dominus meus, et Deus meus”).
12 The full text from Ritus servandus, VIII, 6 reads:
…quod et facit in elevatione calicis; et manu dextera pulsat campanulam ter ad unamquaque elevationem, vel continuate quousque sacerdos deponat hostiam super corporale, et similiter postmodum ad elevationem calicis.
Thus, in addition to the total of three rings, there is described a second option, to ring the bell continuously during the Elevations until the Sacred Species are placed back upon the corporal. However, while mentioned by some rubricians (as it is in the missal’s rubrical texts), those who do tend to discourage this practice (e.g., Britt on p 24: “A single stroke of the bell is preferable to a prolonged ringing.”) as it is potentially distracting. Interestingly though, this method seems to imitate the older practice of using the belfry for signaling the Elevations.
It should be further noted that there is no rubrical authority for ringing the bells five times during the Elevations, that is, 1-3-1 (once at the genuflection, thrice at the elevation, and once again for the genuflection). When compared to the universal practice of a single ring for the elevation moment, the 1-3-1 method is not only potentially distracting, but less practical if the elevation is short, which the rubrics presume.
13 E.g., Msgr. Camille Callewaert (Caeremoniale in Missa, Private et Solemni; 1941—reprinted by Romanitas Press, 2009), p 143; J.B. O’Connell, pp 359-360; Dr. Adrian Fortescue (The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, Austin Press, 1996), pp 90-91; Britt, p 48; Rev. Louis Herbert (Lecons de Liturgie a l’usage des Seminaires; 1952), p 148; LeVavasseur, Haegy and Stercky (Manuel de Liturgie et Ceremonial Selon le Rit Romain, 1940, p 596 and ff 2 and likewise in Ceremonial a l'usage Des Petites Eglises de Paroisse, 1938, p 168; they also cite the Italian rubrician Baldeschi, and the French rubricians Falise and de Conny); Wapelhorst, p 156; Baltimore Ceremonial, p 60, Matters Liturgical, Wuest, Mullaney and Barry, C.SS.R (Pustet, 1956), pp 270–271), Rev. P.J.B. de Herdt (Sacrae Liturgiae Praxis, 1902, vol I, n. 251), Bishop Joseph Van der Stappen, Caeremoniale (Dessain, 1933), vol I, VIII, p 52 and The Altar Servers' Handbook, p 21.
14 Quote cited from L. O’Connell, on p 161, ff 40.
15 Cf. the citations in ff 10 for L. O’Connell, Baltimore Ceremonial, Wapelhorst, Britt, and Matters Liturgical.
16 Cf. the citations in ff 10 for Fortescue, J.B. O’Connell and the Guild’s handbook.
17 As remarked by J.B. O’Connell on p 360, it is presumed that the bell is signaling the faithful to actually approach the Communion rail. However, in many places, it is customary for the faithful to wait until after their triple “Domine non sum dignus” has been recited.
18 The full phrase is “Domine, non sum dignus, ut intres sub tectum meum: sed tantum dic verbo, et sanabitur anima mea”, but the after the word “dignus” the rest is said in silence by the celebrant, so only the first four words are said aloud each time by the priest.
19 Cf. L. Connell on p 161 and Britt on p 48.
20 As described on p 23 of The Altar Servers’ Handbook, but “with three distinct double strokes”, thus not necessarily after each time the celebrant says “Domine non sum dignus”, though this is the most common interpretation.
21 Cf. Fortescue on p 91 and J.B. O’Connell on p 360. Both rubricians mention that this single ring should be given shortly before Communion and after the Agnus Dei, but do not prescribed an exact moment. Obviously it would be distracting to the priest should this be done while he is taking his Communion (under either Species), so it would seem best to give this single ring after the celebrant’s first “Domine non sum dignus”. In addition to exciting the faithful to concentrate on the celebrant’s Communion (and to pray for him), this method will also give sufficient time for the server to replace the bells on the credence, pick up the Communion plate and change over the Communion cloth (if the church has one) before the celebrant is ready to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful (see my Low Mass serving notes for details).