Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sanctus Bells: History

A few weeks ago we featured a post about incense. Using the same resource, we’ll take a look at sanctus bells.

Here’s the site that provides this information: Smells and Bells.  Matthew D. Herrera, who runs the site, introduces his project:

I have prepared a pair of short booklets which explore the history and current use of incense and sanctus bells as powerful devotional aids in the Catholic Church.  I have also included a copy of Sacred Signs, a wonderful little work by the late Msgr. Romano Guardini, that should be of great interest to anyone with a love for Catholic liturgy. 

The booklets are packed with good information on these topics, and are available to anyone who wants to download and print them:

If you have a desire to (re)introduce incense and sanctus bells into your parish, I would suggest printing and forwarding copies of my booklets to your pastor or parish administrator.  Perhaps even your bishop might enjoy copies for his library.  Please send the booklet with a short cover letter similar to the one I have included.  While I retain the copyright to both monographs I hereby give permission for their downloading and dissemination so long as they are not altered in any way or sold.  Please free to contact me with any questions or comments.  Thanks for visiting and Godspeed in your efforts. 

Visit the site to view the booklets, the letter he mentions, and his contact information.
Here is an excerpt from the booklet on Sanctus Bells: History and Use in the Catholic Church.

Most Catholic Christians (at least the more mature ones) are familiar with sanctus bells. Many wonder about them. Some long to hear their joyful sounds. Still others erroneously believe their use during the Mass is now either no longer needed or prohibited altogether by the Church…

Sanctus bells have been rung as part of the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Church for over 800 years. Most sanctus bells used today are small handheld bells or assemblies of three to five bells that may be rung during Mass as directed in…the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM)…

The use of sanctus bells during the Mass seems from two distinct origins. First, ringing the bells creates a joyful noise to the Lord. Second, the bells were rung in times past to signal those not able to attend Mass that something supernatural was taking place.


The use of bells in the Church dates back to the fifth century when St. Paulinus, the Bishop of Nola, introduced them as a means to summon monks to worship. In the seventh century Pope Sabinianus approved the use of bells to call the faithful to the Mass. The Venerable Bede, an English saint of the eighth century, is credited with the introduction of bell ringing at requiem Masses. By the ninth century the use of bells had spread to even the small parish churches of the western Roman Empire.

It wasn’t until the thirteenth century that outdoor tower bells (at first they typically chose the largest bell in the belfry, later the smallest bell in the belfry) began to be run as sanctus bells during the Mass. From a historical standpoint it is interesting to note that tower bells are still used even today as sanctus bells at the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican and a great many other historic churches and cathedrals. A close look at many of these older structures will often reveal a series of sighting holes (and sometimes mirrors) that were once used by bell-ringers to monitor the celebration of the Mass from bell-lofts.

These tower bells were rung at the consecration and presentation of the Eucharist for at least two reasons. First and foremost, the sanctus bells were rung during the Mass to create a joyful noise (often in conjunction with select musical instruments such as the lyre) to the Lord as described in Psalm 98:4:

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

This practice of ringing bells to create a joyful noise for the Lord during the Mass is based to some degree on the use of tintinnabula (Latin for tiny bells) or crotal bells that were a part of ancient Judaic worship.

Ringing the bells also gave notice to those unable to attend the Mass (the sick, slaves, outside guards, etc.) that something divine and miraculous was taking place inside of the church building. The voice of the bell would allow people to stop what they were doing to offer an act of adoration to God. Additionally, the bells provided the ancillary benefit of focusing (or re-focusing) the attention of the faithful inside the church to the miracle that was taking place atop the altar of sacrifice.

With the passage of time there was less of a need to ring the outdoor tower bells as more people were able (or allowed) to attend Mass. Handheld bells, sanctuary-based chimes and sacring rings or “Gloria wheels” (commonly used in Spain and during the Mission Period in Alta California) eventually replaced the large towers bells. The smaller bells were easier and more convenient to use and they were more than capable of creating joyful noises for the Lord. The use of the smaller sanctus bells also continued to help focus the faithful’s attention on the miracle taking place on the altar. Finally, the use of even the smaller bells upheld the already long held tradition of ringing sanctus bells during the Mass.

Nearly 350 years after the introduction of the sanctus bells to the liturgy, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) formally mandated their use during the celebration of the Mass. Thus the use of the bells became a requirement of the official rubrics of the Mass for the first time.
The ringing of sanctus bells is still required during the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (the Latin Tridentine Mass) even today. Conversely the ringing of sanctus bells was made optional during the celebration of the Ordinary From of the Mass which was introduced by Pope Paul VI in 1969.

You can read the more at the link noted above. More sections will be reproduced here at a later date.

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