Browsing Why We Do What We Do

The Bells at St. Patrick

By: Pamela Folse, The Shamrock - August 16, 2020

Bells have always been an important part of divine worship. Their original purpose was three-fold. First, the bells were to sound a joyful noise to the Lord and to ward off evil spirits. In the Roman Ritual for the blessing of bells, the priest says, “At its sound let all evil spirits be driven afar.”

Second, as Christianity grew, bells were mounted in towers to call people to worship. There was no set time for worship, so people went to church when they heard the bells. Soon handbells were used for that same purpose. It is believed that whenever St. Patrick set up a new Christian community or parish somewhere in Ireland, he would choose one of his disciples to lead it after he left, and present them with a bell to call the parishioners to prayer, and to use during religious ceremonies.”

Later, church bells were used to let members of the community know of the death of a member, call people to civic meetings or pealed the joy of a wedding.

In the Eastern Churches, small bells were attached to the thurible that carried incense used at divine worship. Each time the priest swung the thurible, small bells would tinkle to remind the people of the holiness of the practice.

Third, in the Roman Rite handbells were used by altar servers to mark important moments in Mass. Sometimes foreign priests were assigned to communities that spoke a different language. The priests mostly spoke Latin, which the people did not understand. Therefore, the bells were rung to alert the people that something special was happening at that part of the Mass.

The use of bells is now optional. Priests usually speak the vernacular and the people can hear when those important parts of the Mass are occurring. Father Michael here at St. Patrick, like many other priests, prefers the use of the bells. The Roman Missal states, “A little before the Consecration, if appropriate, a minister rings a small bell as a signal to the faithful. The minister also rings the small bell at each elevation by the Priest, according to local custom” (No. 150).

The bells here at St. Patrick are usually rung at the time of the epiclesis in the Eucharistic prayer. That’s the time when Father Michael places his hands over the bread and wine to be consecrated. He prays for the Holy Spirit to come down upon the gifts so that they may become the Body and Blood of our Lord. The ringing of the bells at this point alerts the congregation to what is happening at that moment and for the consecration that immediately follows.

“According to local custom, a minister also rings the bell at the showing of both the Eucharistic Bread and the chalice.” After the priest says the words of consecration, he elevates the Sacred Host or the chalice of the Precious Blood. The ringing of the bell alerts the people that transubstantiation has taken place and that the true Body and Blood of our Lord is truly present on the altar. The sacred liturgy does not specify whether the bells should be rung once or three short times during the elevations. Father Michael prefers that the bells are rung three times during each elevation.

We are a people of senses. We participate at Mass and participate in worship with all our being. Sounds are important. The sound of the bells adds to the reverence and solemnity of the Mass. They highlight the sacred action taking place on the altar. What a beautiful, sacred and very practical tradition.

If you’re wondering about the exterior bell system here at St. Patrick, it was struck by lightning during a recent rainstorm and are being worked on. We look forward to the return of our system so that we can hear those bells ringing again soon.

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