In the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, Lutheranism, Methodism and Anglicanism, an altar or sanctus bell is typically a small hand-held bell or set of bells. The primary reason for the use of such bells is to create a joyful noise to the Lord as a way to give thanks for the miracle taking place atop the altar. An ancillary function of the bells is to focus the attention of those attending the Mass that a supernatural event is taking place on the altar. Such bells are also commonly referred to as the Mass bell, sacring bell, Sacryn bell, saints' bell, sance-bell, or sanctus bell (or "bells", when there are two or more). and are kept on the credence table or some other convenient location within the sanctuary.
Use in the Catholic Church
Use at Mass
"A little before the Consecration, when appropriate, a server rings a bell as a signal to the faithful." The usual moment chosen for giving the signal of the approach of the Consecration is when the priest stretches out his hands over the host and the chalice while reciting the epiclesis. Mention of this signal was introduced into the Roman Missal in Pope John XXIII's 1962 revision. Even before 1962 it was common practice to give this signal, although it then "ha[d] no authority".
All pre-1970 editions of the Roman Missal, including that of 1962, prescribe continuous ringing of the altar bell while the priest recites the words of the Sanctus at Low Mass. but, in line with its abolition of a hard and fast distinction between sung and merely spoken Mass, the 1970 edition makes no mention of that practice.
"According to local custom, the server also rings the bell as the priest shows the host and then the chalice." Pre-1970 editions of the Roman Missal prescribe either a triple or a continuous ringing of the bell at each showing of the consecrated elements. Pre-1962 editions also prescribe that the server should first light a torch, to be extinguished only after the priest has consumed the chalice or has given Communion to any others who are to receive the Eucharist.
The ringing of an altar bell began probably in the thirteenth century. It is not mentioned in the original 1570 Roman Missal of Pope Pius V and was not introduced into papal Masses until the time of Pope John Paul II.
When, before the reintroduction of concelebration, priests frequently said Mass at a side altar while a public celebration was taking place at a nearby altar, the Congregation of Sacred Rites found it necessary to issue a prohibition against ringing a bell at the Mass celebrated at the side altar. The same rule was made even for a Solemn Mass celebrated at an altar other than that at which the Blessed Sacrament is publicly exposed, and allowed the ringing of the altar bell to be omitted when Mass was celebrated at the altar of exposition.
Like all church bells, the altar bell is not rung from the end of the Gloria in excelsis at the Mass of the Lord's Supper until the beginning of the Gloria in excelsis at the Easter Vigil. During this interval a clapper (crotalus/matraca, in Latin, Crotalum, Crepitaculum) is sometimes used in place of the altar bell.
In a few places there is a local custom, not mandated by liturgical law, of not using altar bells during the season of Advent and of then ringing them throughout the Gloria at Christmas Midnight Mass to celebrate the resumption of their use.
Anglican parishes use the altar bell, which is rung to signify the Real Presence of Christ in the sacred Elements. During the Eucharist, it is usually rung three times - once before the Words of Institution, and once at each elevation of the Host and of the Chalice. It may also be rung to indicate the time that the faithful may come forward to receive Communion.
The bells are also rung when the monstrance or ciborium is exposed or processed, for example when moving the reserved Sacrament from a side altar to the high altar. Custom differs concerning its use at Low Mass, or during Lent and Holy Week.
In some churches, particularly in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, a large (and sometimes decorated) gong, struck with a mallet, may be used during the celebration of mass as an alternative to the altar bell.
Other Protestant use
In some Methodist churches, particularly the United Methodist Church of the United States, altar bells are used two different times during common services held on Sundays. The Chimes of the Trinity are rung by an acolyte before the prelude of the service and at the end of the benediction. The Chimes of the Trinity is the ringing of the bell three times to represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
- Herrera, Matthew D.Sanctus Bells: Their History and Use in the Catholic Church. San Luis Obispo: Tixlini Scriptorium, 2004. http://www.ewtn.com/library/liturgy/sanctusbells.pdf http://www.smellsbells.com/sanctusbells.html
- General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 150
- Dennis Chester Smolarski, "The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 1969-2002: A Commentary (ISBN 978-0-8146-2936-9), pp. 20-21
- Minister paulo ante Consecrationem campanulae signo fideles moneat (Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, VIII, 6 in the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal, but not in earlier editions)
- Adrian Fortescue, Canon of the Mass, in Catholic Encyclopedia
- Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, VII, 8
- Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, VIII, 6
- Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae, VIII, 6 in pre-1962 editions of the Roman Missal
- Bells at the Consecration
- Missale Romanum. Editio Princeps (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1998 ISBN 88-209-2547-8
- Decree of 31 Aigist 1967
- Gardellini, Instr. Clem., nos. 16, 4, 5
- Edward McNamara, "Substituting Bells in Advent"
- Altar Guild and Sacristy Handbook by S. Anita Stauffer (Augsburg Fortress)
- "Art and Devotion". Final paragraph: St Gabriel's Church, North Acton. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Schulte, Augustin Joseph (1907). "Altar (in Liturgy)". In Herbermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. 1. New York: Robert Appleton.