Altar bells and keeping faith with tradition

At a recent class on the corrected translation, there was some discussion of whether altar bells would make a comeback; my parish doesn’t use them, and while some people are very happy about that, there are others who would prefer, often with equal passion, to have them back. I am firmly on the side of bringing the bells back, but that vote requires a few words of explanation.

Candidly, I’m not strongly concerned about altar bells per se. While I don’t feel that they’re strictly necessary for those who are participating fully and actively in the Mass, as St. Pius X and Vatican II called on the congregation to do, 1 liturgy isn’t just about the necessary, and I’m not at all dismayed if they’re used; they neither edify nor distract me. (Some people don’t like the little altar bells, and personally I would prefer to have the main bells rung if we’re going to have bells, but I’m sanguine about that issue, too.)

I am concerned, however, for tradition, and for our obligation to be faithful stewards of it. As I have remarked many times before (most recently here), I believe that a generation’s job is to receive our patrimony from our parents’ generation and pass it on, as intact as we possibly can, to our children’s generation. Perhaps a little more burnished, perhaps with some sharp edges sanded down, but undiminished. To be sure, it’s hard to overstate how fundamentally at odds that conviction is with the world of today, or how fundamentally hostile some people have become to the notion that we owe our inheritance anything but contempt—we are told to make our world anew, and that anything received from generations past must be treated with extreme skepticism, to be accepted only if we, in our infinite wisdom, deem it good—but that is what I believe, exhort, and teach. (You’ll find the themes of this paragraph fleshed out in posts such as this one and this one.)

With this in mind, we must remember that the question of altar bells isn’t just about altar bells, still less my personal preferences on that specific issue. The question arises in a context. Altar bells have been a traditional accoutrement of the liturgy for at least seven centuries, 2 but in recent decades, like many other things about which Vatican II said nothing, they were swept away by the group that we might call the “pseudoconciliarists”—the self-proclaimed stewards of Vatican II who caused enormous damage to the Church (and to the Council, for that matter) by vesting their personal preferences in the garb of an ersatz Vatican II, even though the council didn’t approve of, and wouldn’t have approved, such changes. The wrecking ball went through the Church’s liturgy and her sacred spaces during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, sweeping away (or at least under the rug) things like altar rails, sacred art, friday penance, and any number of traditional practices that accompanied Catholic faith and practice—including altar bells, which largely perdured only in more traditionalist parishes.

Happily, just in the nick of time, 3 a great number of traditional things that were once considered outre in circles that took the National Dissenting Reporter are being recovered in a great number of parishes. We see a greater use of incense; we see a growing number of bishops and priests celebrating ad orientem; we see a resurgence in celebration and attendance of the usus antiquior Mass; we see a revival of Latin and chant in the celebration of the novus ordo; we hear of parishes reinstalling altar rails and making their churches more beautiful during scheduled refurbishments rather than less; across the pond, the Bishops of England and Wales have reinstated the Friday obligation. The big picture is that we see a robust and growing orthodoxy that is in stark contrast, as Mark Shea and George Weigel have recently noted, to the dissenters of the last generation who have failed to intellectually reproduce and are dying out. It is becoming ever clearer that the genuine conciliar reforms will endure, but pseudoconciliarist excess will not. These are exciting times!

Altar bells are a part of our liturgical tradition; they are part of the inheritance that pseudoconcilarists tried to deny succeeding generations, and they are part of the orthodox revival now underway. I don’t personally have a strong attachment to altar bells, but altar bells don’t stand or fall alone; after all, a traditionalism that seeks to preserve only those traditions for which I personally have strong feelings is no traditionalism at all! To stand on tradition when something that I like is called into question but to say nothing of it when it’s something that I don’t personally care for isn’t giving deference and respect to tradition, it’s the unseemly utilitarianism of “any stick to beat a dog.” Accordingly, I am a ready and cheerful ally of any effort to recover any traditional part or accoutrement of our liturgy—including those parts about which I am personally ambivalent.

On November 10, 2011, the feast of St. Leo the Great.


  1. Insofar, that is, as their original purpose was to call the congregation’s attention to the altar at key moments of the liturgical action. See Nicholas Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass 266 (1902).
  2. Gihr says that bells at the consecration have been with us since the fourteenth century, see id., at 644 n.3, and writing a half-century later, Josef Jungmann had evidence of the practice as early as 1201, see The Mass of the Roman Rite, Its Origins and Development 426 (Brunner, trns. 1959); we may reasonably suppose that it was well-established practice by the time it appears in extant documentation.
  3. That is to say, before such things could disappear from living memory.