Tuesday, July 29


The Miraculous Mass of St. Gregory, Adrian Isenbrandt (1510-1550)

"All the Bells on Earth did Ring":
Random Thoughts on the Canon, Seamless Characters, Sanctus Bells and the Words of Institution

My parish recently acquired a set of altar bells as part of the continuing campaign to renovate the sanctuary. While the changes have become something of a bone of contention, on the whole I'm pleased with the result. Plus, we've got our bells, and they are a welcome addition to the liturgy. Though I think I'm the only person here who knows how to ring them properly, three discrete rings, not just one long jumbled ringringringringring. But I digress. In some places, the Sanctus bells haven't been rung for forty years. However, I grew up hearing them at school masses. Frankly, they were about the only traditional thing about the liturgies at my grade-school, with strummy guitar hymns that always started out with the same cords from collections entitled Hi God. And servers wearing hideous brown albs that made them look like mini-me Junipero Serras. And an invisible tabernacle, which was quite nice if you could find it (had a cool Pelican on the front), though that was the trouble. Oh, I tell a lie: we had a fully-functional Church Lady with standard scary painted-on eyebrows who probably still thought it was 1940.

Some claim that the bells were abolished as some nebulous postconciliar reform; the current Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (150) states that such decisions should be left up to local custom, as it probably should be. Though, interestingly enough, if one reads the words carefully, it seems to suggest that ringing the bells before the elevation is absolutely mandatory. I seem to recall that the Sanctus Bell was never explicitly mentioned in the rubrics of the old Missal, and was never in fact adopted for use at Rome. Laws concerning its use seem to have been laid down as late as one hundred years ago, though it has a much longer history. Customs concerning its use varied widely, being rung in most places at the Sanctus and at the two elevations, while in other places it was also rung at the Domine non sum dignus, during Communion or at the Fraction, something I remember having seen myself.

Oh, by the way, Sanctus Belle would make a really cool screen-name for a Catholic Nerdette. You can use that, ladies, just remember who told ya. But anyway…

Some people claim the bells are simply unnecessary in this day and age. I've never liked that argument, since you could say the same thing about candles or high pulpits in an age of electric light and microphones. I admit that's a weak counter-argument, and perhaps a more in-depth view of the origin of the Sanctus bell is in order. The Sanctus bell, also known as the Sacring or Altar Bell, came into wide use in the thirteenth century, though gongs may have been used at earlier periods for similar purposes. It would signal ringers in the church tower to sound their own bells so that all outside might meditate on the mystery taking place. A beautiful idea. There were other reasons, given the size of large churches, the silent canon, or the singing of the Sanctus and Benedictus over the prayers at the altar. The faithful, who did not communicate as often as they ought, instead sought a substitute in adoring the elevated Host, and thus the bell served to underline this sacred event. One of the most interesting articles on this subject was actually written by a Lutheran, and I suggest you read it.

The bell wasn't just it, though. All sorts of crazy things grew up to emphasize the elevations, including one parish in pre-Dissolution England where mechanical angels slid down the reredos to surround the elevated Host! These oddities, or the move away from frequent reception of Communion still doesn’t mean that the elevation or adoration of the Host was a block to people’s devotional lives.

Still, we don't do the canon silently anymore, not in most parishes, anyway, so what good is ringing the Sanctus bell?

My point, and I do have one, is this. First, I think the attempts to remove the ringing at the elevations in the name of "restoring" the mass is misguided. Ritual is, to some extent, about redundancy, because redundancy is understandable. Removing something "unnecessary" can be dangerous. Restoration is one thing, but scrubbing a painting within an inch of its life is another. It's vandalism. Take the church of San Marco at Venice. A beautiful sight, built up over the ages, and take out one column and the whole loses something. The Mass, like San Marco, is the creation and re-creation of ages of devotion, carefully added on to but never radically changed. To "restore" it to any particular era, whether Tridentine, Medieval or Primitive Christian, misunderstands the organic way liturgy has formed.

The bell is one of those things. It still has a meaning, and in fact some who try to dispose of it have their own reasons to erase that meaning. Never pull a fence down without looking to see what’s on the other side. It is fashionable today to claim that the whole Eucharistic Prayer, as opposed to just the Words of Institution spoken by the priest in Persona Christi, are necessary to confect the Sacrament. This brings in the congregation, naturally, and makes them "necessary," somehow alleging they’re needed to transubstantiate the host. Even the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (now, be nice, readers: they have "sitten on the chair of Moses," even if from time to time they slouch) seems to echo this rather dubious idea, responding to a query with the words: "[T]he Eucharistic Prayer [is] the one 'great prayer' of priest and people. [T]he entire Eucharistic Prayer […] is consecratory. [T]o foster an appreciation of this seamless character of the Eucharistic Prayer, the ringing of bells is optional."

While there existed some doubt in the past of when the actual Transubstantiation was complete the presence of the laity was never a requirement, while the doctrine, as developed and defined by the Magisterium, says very clearly the opposite: St. Thomas writes, "The form of this Sacrament is the very words of Christ…these words spoken by the priest in the person of Christ brings into being this Sacrament. The minister of this Sacrament is the priest; and no one else can consecrate this matter into the Body of Christ."

This "seamless character" argument misunderstands, in addition to the Mass, also the nature of the laity and the priesthood. The laity has its own office, as Vatican II reminds us, but this won’t be reached by clericalizing it. The mass isn’t about us, and it isn’t about the priest, either, so why try and get in a power-struggle with him?

The bells mark that high point of the liturgy, words that Christ Himself said and is saying as the priest pronounces them. Like all forms of good ritual, it is natural, it makes perfect sense: it says, hey, look over here, a miracle is happening!

We may not have the silent Canon, or even the Sanctus sung over the priest's prayers, but no matter how loudly we hear those words (even if they're microphoned into our ears at top volume), we're only human, with hundreds of distractions at our beck and call. We can always use another reminder that we're watching the supreme miracle unfold before us.

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