Bells for the Pope

I see they’re ringing all the church bells for fifteen minutes in Austria this Thursday at 8pm Roman time to mark the end of Pope Benedict’s papacy.

I think it’s a great idea, and at my suggestion the abbot has approved the same here. (1pm Collegeville time.) Well, ten minutes instead of fifteen, but I’ll take it. They still have some of the flair of the Hapsburgs over there, so that needed to be inculturated for Minnesota conditions.

It’s things like this, however small, that reinforce Catholic identity and bring our faith into daily life.

Now I’m thinking about bells for when the new Pope is elected. Perhaps the length could be tied in to the name the new Pope takes. Say, 10 minutes if it’s John Paul III, 5 if it’s Benedict XVII, 15 if it’s Paul VII, 30 if it’s John XXIV. And if it’s Pius XIII? Maybe a toller for 3 minutes?

Last time around, I was watching CNN when Joseph Ratzinger emerged as Benedict XVI. I immediately said to the person with me, “Let us pray for the new Pope” and said the first half of the Hail Mary. Silence. No response. Then this: “I’m not ready to pray for THAT yet.”

I pushed to have bells rung that time, too, in 2005. And so it happened. At least the part about starting the bells, but we never talked through how long they’d ring. So they rang, and rang, and rang…  until after about 25 minutes a faculty member sent an email to the university list serve asking how long the clanging noise would interfere with his classroom discussion.

I expect we’ll ring the bells for 15 minutes when the new Pope emerges, whoever it is and whatever his name. And I will say a Hail Mary for the new Pope. This time I’m prepared to say the whole thing myself.



  1. Depends on who the next pope is.
    I think “pealing” is more appropriate than ringing.
    However, might need to “toll” the bells ie funeral toll if a cardinal from the curia is elected 🙁

    1. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #1:
      (A) ‘Pealing’, as opposed to ‘ringing’, would be more appropriate only if one had a peal of bells. Such a peal consists of a given number (say 8, 12 or more) of bells tuned according to the diatonic scale, played by a team of persons who, in succession, pull the ropes of each bell. The bells, when ‘pealed’, are rung in sequences which differ with each ‘peal’ and which go through as many of the mathematical permutations of the number of bells as possible or desired. Pealing bells is one of the national passtimes in Britain, where, to go through the entire permutations of some peals of bells can take hours and even days, depending on the number of bells in the peal. The English bell has a major third as its predominant overtone. These bells are mounted such that they make a complete revolution when rung by pulling their ropes. Peals of bells are relatively uncommon in America, except in quite a few Anglican churches.

      (B) The carillon is also a set of bells tuned to the diatonic scale, and is more common in the low countries, Germanic lands, and other parts of Europe. These bells are mounted stationarily and are rung by a carilloneur (or carilloneuse) at a keyboard with very large keys which are pounded by the player. The keys are connected to the clappers of their respective bells by a mechanical apparatus not unlike that of a tracker organ. The predominant overtone of continental bells is a minor third. Unlike a peal of bells pealed according to series of mathematical permutations, the carillon plays musical compostions. Carillons are not uncommon in American, being found in many Lutheran churches and some Catholic ones. There is a 24 bell carillon (by the Dutch bell founders, Petit & Fritsen) at St Mary’s seminary here in Houston.

      (C) Then there are bells. A set of any number of bells which are not tuned and are just rung more or less simultaneously, or in no particular sequence by one or more persons pulling their ropes. One would not speak of ‘pealing’ such a set of bells, but just of ‘ringing’ them.

      1. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #4:
        MJO,Thank you for the info.
        In my opinion pealing is more “appealing” (no pun intended) to the ear and make a more joyful sound than just ringing. My office is down the street from an Episcopal Church which occasionally peal their bells. Such a joy to the ears! For an important occasion as the selection of a pope we should go all out and not just ring the bells but would be more appropriate for the Vatican to peal the bells in my opinion but they may not be able to at St. Peters.
        As an aside, I remember hearing the pealing of the bells at Westminster Abbey (on television) during Princess Diana’s funeral. The bells sounded as if they were actually crying out in mourning.

      2. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #5:
        DR –
        I agree with you about the more euphonic, and, perhaps, romantic, ‘appeal’ of ‘pealing’ bells, whether or not they are technically a ‘peal’. And, I share in your joy at hearing bells rung whether they are the pealing of a peal, a Mozart ditty or a hymn tune played on a carillon, or just the indiscriminate ringing of a number of bells together. (I’ve even known of a few people who started attending church because of the joyful sound of the bells they heard while passing by.)

        In Houston we have five carillons: St Mary’s seminary, St Vincent de Paul’s, Trinity Lutheran, St John the Divine’s Episcopal, and one at a small shopping centre. The only one real peal of bells that I know of here is at St Thomas’ Episcopal. Lots of churches have just a bell or several bells.

        A common practice in mediaeval Europe was to ring the large (‘tolling’) bell at the elevation during mass. There may be a few places that still do this.

      3. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #4:
        If I may ask, do you know if there is any ‘patterned’ ringing in southern Europe?

        I remember a glorious ringing of many bells calling the faithful to Vespers on the Feast of St. Benedict at St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls, in Rome, last time I was there. There seemed to be an organized pattern, but I wasn’t sure.

      4. @Christopher Douglas – comment #24:
        CD –
        I have never heard of what might be called ‘patterned’ ringing outside of the English peals of bells. Most church towers in Europe, while they may have a number of bells in them, do not have the diatonically tuned bells required for peals of the mathematical permutations of the number of bells that one hears in Britain. I am of the opinion that the only tuned bells on the continent are carillons. However, I may be mistaken and would be honoured if someone should correct me. In a tower full of bells that are not tuned according to the diatonic scale, the bells are often rung more or less at the same time, producing a right joyful noise even though they are following no particular ‘pattern’.

        As an afterthought for any who have always wondered: if a bell tower is connected to the church and is an integral part of the structure, it is a belfry. If it is separate from the church and is a distinct independent structure, it is a campanile.

      5. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #25:
        Many thanks for your response!

        So places like Venice and Paris (did you see that Notre Dame recently got a new set of bells?) have various sized bells that are rung at random? Yes, it does make a glorious sound!

  2. “A common practice in mediaeval Europe was to ring the large (‘tolling’) bell at the elevation during mass. There may be a few places that still do this.”

    When I can, I attend an Anglo-Catholic parish in Toronto where this is done.

    As to the OP, I think it’s a great idea. I love bells and regret their disappearance. As a young boy, the priest sometimes allowed me to ring the bell before Mass. Why the parish stopped its bells, I don’t know. When travelling in Europe, this sound was one of my favourites. Preceding Mass, it really helps one gather oneself to the right inward disposition.

  3. Fr Anthony! Tolling the bell at the elevation during mass! Did you read that? Something else for you to pioneer at St John’s ….. if you haven’t done so already.

    1. MJO,

      I’m skeptical. When you say “elevation,” do you mean at “Per ipsum” before the Amen concluding the eucharistic prayer? I suspect rather that you mean the middle section of the Eucharistic Prayer, the supper narrative. But the books (before and after Vatican II) don’t speak of “elevating” here but “showing.” Ringing bells here, though permitted by the rubrics, is a bad idea in my judgment. The entire eucharistic prayer is consecratory, not just these “magic words”; trying to highlight one “magic moment” really runs the risk of distorting our understanding of the nature of the Real Presence. I don’t mean to use polemical language, and I’m not accusing you of those distortions. But ritual enhancements here are risky in supporting that.

      As for the genuflections and incensing and bells at the so-called “consecration”: it’s great theater, and I totally get the aesthetic appeal. But that doesn’t make it good liturgy.

      Maybe we could think about dignified rituals that support the structure and meaning of the eucharistic prayer – I’ve wondered, for example, about having an acolyte on each side of the celebrant swinging a smoking thurible throughout the entire Eucharistic Prayer. Or how about ringing bells at 4 or 5 points during the Eucharistic Prayer, at each point when the assembly chants a simple spirited acclamation meant to draw them into the sacrificial action? (This is my initial brain-storming, maybe it will inspire you and others to better ideas.)


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #9:
        Fr. Ruff – in the 1980’s, had a insightful DM and Liturgy Director who composed or put music to the EPIII. (presider could sing EP with the music or proclaim it with music in the background = I know, forbidden now) The church bells rang while the church sang the commons of the EP. The experience and parish supported and responded well to this. It signficantly kept the EP as one prayer of the people rather than focusing on sections, narrative, consecration, etc.

      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #9:
        Or how about ringing bells at 4 or 5 points during the Eucharistic Prayer,

        Like say at the Sanctus, the Hanc Igitur, the showing of the host to the people, the showing of the chalice to the people, and shortly before communion, perhaps at the Domine Non Sum Dignus. 🙂

      3. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #9:
        I recall a pastor who also declared that the whole of the EP was consecratory who forbade the practice of ringing the sacring bells during Mass. This was highly upsetting to the people because it was an imposition of his own personal piety on the whole of the parish. He refused to permit something that the Church permits and seems to be forgetting that the universal law is to kneel for these moments alone (outside of the US), this is when the deacon kneels, these words are expressed differently than the rest of the EP. With his edict the pastor attempted to supress a tradition, an expression of continuity in the liturgy, he forbade something supported by the GIRM.
        This is an example of progressive rigidity, IMHO that is pastorally unwise. Recall what we see in the letter to the bishops with SP: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

  4. I love bells, but in the steeple and not during the Eucharist. We stopped ringing the bells during the narrative and the atmosphere changed completely. During the entire eucharistic prayer, yes the entire prayer, you can hear a pin drop it’s so quiet because everyone is focused on what the priest is saying. When we rang the bells it seemed that you could “daydream” until the bells rang.
    MJO states “Fr Anthony! Tolling the bell at the elevation during mass”…. I may be wrong but don’t the rubrics state that a small bell may be rung prior to showing the Eucharist and not during the showing or elevation?
    In any event I have found the bells to be a distraction during the Eucharistic prayer especially those tinny sounding cheap bells!

    1. @Dale Rodrigue – comment #12:
      In my old parish we had a gong with a deep sound to it that was sounded as a signal to stand for the procession about to head down the center aisle. It had the sound of a Buddhist temple gong. It was very impressive.

      No other bells were used during Mass, but a lot of incense from two angels holding burners on either side of the sanctuary . It was burned throughout the singing of the EP.

      Our pastor was very creative. As with many Jesuits of his generation, I’m sure it never occurred to him to consult the GIRM.

  5. There are no bells during the EP in our parish and you can hear a pin drop so attentive is the participation through attentive listening. Of course, there is no rubric in the MR directing the use of bells.

      1. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #19:


        150. A little before the Consecration, if appropriate, a minister rings a small bell as a signal to the faithful. The minister also rings the small bell at each elevation by the Priest, according to local custom

  6. I have been tying what is left of my cancerous brain into knots all day trying to figure out if bells with a minor third overtone should be rung for a pope who has celebrated the E.F. or the converse.

  7. I remember very well in the 1980’s hearing a prominent liturgical theologian using the derogatory words, “magic moment” to refer to the words of institution or consecration and that it detracted from the complete Eucharistic prayer to focus on those few words. It reminded of the anti-Catholic vitriol of those who manipulated the Latin words of consecration almost in a sacrilegious way and turned them into the magic formula “Hockus Pocus”. I rejected his thesis then and have ever since and I guess seeing it now in a retro sort of way leaves a stale taste in my mouth. At that point I had been in a seminary and a parish where bells weren’t rung any longer at any point in the liturgy, yet there were still those “magic moments” but now shifted to less important elements of the Mass, such as bringing up the gifts and the sign of peace. I remember also the 1980’s trend of members of the assembly going well beyond what was required to extinguish the candles around the ambo after the homily and then light the candle, one or two on the “table” and poof a table cloth on it and dance around it as other items needed for the table were placed upon it, again secondary rituals giving magic importance.
    I recognize the bells at the showing of the Eucharist after the consecratory words or elevating it according to whoever is celebrating are not necessary. It is not necessary to even say any of the words of the Eucharistic prayer aloud, let alone sing them as such singing and speaking might make the complete Eucharistic prayer a magic moment. Let’s move away from such rhetoric and focus not in a “hockus Pockus” way upon lesser elements of the Eucharistic Liturgy as though these are the new magic moments of the reformed liturgy of the Consilium. I recommend the sobriety of the Latin Rite Mass and its noble simplicity that could include bells at the traditional, important, eye catching and ear hearing moments of the Liturgy. The only question I would ask, does it really damage the faith and good works of Catholics in the profane world they live and are called to witness to Christ and their Catholic faith to hear bells at the consecration in the sacred world of the Mass?

  8. I think the attentive listening and heartily voiced acclamations from the assembly before, during and after the Eucharistic Prayer are better liturgically than the , to quote Poe, “the tintinnabulation of the bells.”

  9. I’m curious, Anthony, why you say “It’s things like this, however small, that reinforce Catholic identity and bring our faith into daily life.”

    As a Lutheran, bells ringing from the steeples of Lutheran churches have been part of my faith experience as well. Now granted, we never rang them for the death, resignation, or election of a pope . . . but the broader discussion in the comments is around the use of bells in general, which is hardly limited to Catholicism.

    Indeed, I have a delightful memory of a stunning Easter, where the director of music had asked everyone to bring some kind of bell with them on Easter. People arrived with small little bells like you’d see on a slender string or ribbon, and with bells like the old bell you’d see on a teacher’s desk. People came with big cast-iron triangles (“Come and get it” bells from the ranch) and little counter-top bells you tap on top (“Food’s up!” from the restaurant kitchen). Other bells were available in the narthex for guests and others who didn’t arrive with one.

    The directions were simple: during a doxological final stanza to a hymn, ring your bell. During an “alleluia” of a congregational hymn, ring your bell. It turned the entire sanctuary into a living Zimbelstern — and it was truly glorious.

  10. At this point, I don’t know if this comment is topical or tangential, but: you’ve inspired us to ring bells at Creighton University as well… we settled on a two-bell peal for eight minutes, one for each year of B16’s pontificate, and will ring a four-bell peal when a new pope is elected.

  11. We have a “Bell Book” at our monastery…it indicates that at the death of a pope we toll the bell followed by 10 minutes of ringing our large bell. Of course, nothing stated regarding a resignation of a pope… However, at the election of a pope we ring all three bells for 10 minutes. I remember helping with the tolling when John Paul II died but was not at home at the time of Benedict’s election.

  12. End of B16’s Papacy seen as Liturgy

    I find the way that B16 has enacted the end of his Papacy to be a very remarkable “first time” liturgy, free of the cult of personality.

    The decision to announce his resignation during a regularly scheduled meeting of Cardinals without any advance hype of leaks let the decision speak rather than trying to shape the reaction.

    The “last public Mass” of Ash Wednesday was the antithesis of going out with a glorious “Mass of Thanksgiving” for his papacy.

    The regularly scheduled Papal Retreat of the first week of Lent took the focus off himself, even as it subtly suggested the life of prayer which he was about to enter (and which in a way he seems to be inviting others to share as he role models a way different from JP2 to end one’s pilgrimage).

    Keeping to the regularly scheduled audiences (with a concession to a larger final one) seemed to underline the importance he gave them as well as the Angelus addresses.

    The pledge of obedience to his unknown successor among the cardinals (which as Lombardi noted was not necessary) managed by anticipation his future role. He does not now have to be present when his successor has his first public Mass.

    The title of Emeritus Pope, analogous to keeping the title of President for former Presidents seems a much more satisfactory solution than Bishop, Archbishop, or Cardinal. It is an analogy draw from a democratic society rather than from monarchies. Former USA presidents never completely return to private life. They know they are on stage anytime they go out of their private compound, and typically rarely comment upon the current president.. B16 seems determined to live the remainder of his life within the privacy of the Vatican compounds.

    I particularly liked the “helicopter ride into the sunset with the bells tolling” as the symbolic end of the Papacy. It combined the bells and all the traditional sites and history of Rome with the modern pomp and symbols of State arrivals and departures (helicopters, airports). It seemed to even overwhelm the TV commentators.

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