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Why Do We....

Why Do We…Use Sanctus Bells?

The primary reason for the use of sanctus bells is to create a joyful noise to the Lord as a way to give thanks for the miracle taking place at the Altar, and to focus the attention of those attending the Mass that a supernatu-ral event is taking place at the altar. 

Bells in the Bible
The use of bells is mentioned four times in the Old Testament of the Bible. Exodus 28:33-35 describes the vestments worn by the high priest Aaron as he approached the Arc of the Covenant in the Holiest of Holies: “On its skirts you shall make pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, around its skirts, with bells of gold between them, a golden bell and a pomegranate, round about on the skirts of the robe. And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, lest he die.”

This description of Aa-ron's extremely ornate priestly vestments is repeated in Exodus 39:25-26 and again in Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 45:9 : “And he encircled him with pomegranates, with very many golden bells round about, to send forth a sound as he walked, to make their ringing heard in the temple as a reminder to the sons of his people.”

Origin of Bells in Churches
The use of bells in the Church dates back to the fifth century, when Saint Paulinus, the Bishop of Nola, intro-duced 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 cred-ited with the introduc-tion 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 thir-teenth century that outdoor tower bells began to be rung as "Sanctus bells" during the Mass. It is interest-ing to note that tower bells are still used to-day as Sanctus bells at the Basilica of Saint Pe-ter in the Vatican and a great many other his-toric churches and ca-thedrals. 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 so that the bells could be rung at the proper time. Many churches, particularly in England, later placed small Sanctus bells atop the rood screen (between the chancel and the nave of the church) as a refinement of using large, outdoor tower bells. These tower bells were rung at the consecration and presentation of the Eu-charist. 

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 helped to focus the at-tention of the faithful inside the church on the miracle that was taking place on the al-tar of sacrifice.

Nearly 350 years after the introduction of the Sanctus bells rung dur-ing the Liturgy, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) formally man-dated their use during the celebration of the Mass. Thus for the first time the use of the bells became a required part of the official rubrics of the Mass. 

Use at Mass
A little before the Con-secration, a server rings a bell as a signal to the faithful. The server also rings the bell as the priest shows the host and then the chalice, and at the Great Amen. 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, but another moment traditionally used for this purpose is at the first words of the Sanc-tus. 

Like all church bells, the sanctus bells are not rung from the end of the Gloria in excelsis at the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday until the beginning of the Gloria in excelsis at the Easter Vigil.