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Altar bell

In the Roman Catholic Church and in some churches of the Anglican Communion, an altar bell is a small bell placed on the credence or in some other convenient place on the epistle side of the altar. Its original intention was to draw the parishioners' attention to the occurrence of transubstantiation (especially for those present who did not follow the Latin Mass).

It is also called the Mass bell, sacring bell, saints' bell, sance-bell, or sanctus bell (or "bells", when there are three).

Traditional usage

In traditional Catholicism, according to the rubrics, the Altar Bell is rung only at the Sanctus and at the elevation of both Species to invite the faithful to the act of adoration at the Consecration. This must be done even in private chapels. It may also be rung at the Domine non sum dignus, and again before the distribution of Holy Communion to the laity, and at other times according to the custom of the place.

When the Blessed Sacrament is publicly exposed,

  1. It may or may not be rung at high Mass, and at a low Mass which takes the place of the high Mass, celebrated at the Altar of Exposition, according to the custom of the place.
  2. It is not rung at low Masses at any altar of such church, but in such cases a low signal may be given with the bell at the sacristy door when the priest is about to begin Mass.
  3. It is not rung at high Mass celebrated at an altar other than that on which the Blessed Sacrament is publicly exposed.

It should not be rung at low Masses whilst a public celebration is taking place, and at any Mass during the public recitation of the Divine Office in choir, if a said Mass be celebrated at an altar near the choir.

It is not rung from the end of the Gloria in excelsis on Maundy Thursday to the beginning of the Gloria in excelsis on Holy Saturday. During this interval the Memoriale Rituum prescribes that the clapper (crotalus) be used to give the signal for the Angelus, but it is nowhere prescribed in the liturgical functions. The custom of using the clapper on these occasions appears quite proper. The Congregation of Sacred Rites (10 September, 1898) when asked if a gong may be used instead of the small bell answered, "Negative; seu non convenire".

Modern usage

In modern times its use in the Mass is considered optional to the Consecration. Many parishes do not use them, but they are recommended, and some do continue to use them. (It is at the discretion of the individual priest, unless directed otherwise by the hierarchy). Today it usually refers to a hand-held bell or set of bells (usually three).

Generally speaking, modern usage is to ring the bell briefly at the sanctus, and then to ring at the elevation of the Host and again at the elevation of the chalice. In some places it may also be rung at the priest's communion.

Anglican use

Some Anglo-Catholic (High Church 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.


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