Catholic worship excites the senses with movement and color, incense and music — the “smells and bells” of tradition. This is because we bring the entirety of ourselves to prayer: body and soul. Posture marks the solemnity and reverence of certain moments — for instance, standing at the proclamation of the Gospel and kneeling for the consecration. Music enhances our participation as well, bringing the assembly’s voices together in unity as the People of God come together in divine worship.
Three factors historically led to a certain distance or disconnect between the actions of the priest during parts of the Mass and the actions of the people: language, posture and acoustics. Over the centuries Latin became increasingly less understood by most people. The priest stood at the altar facing the same direction as the people and, in some churches, monasteries and cathedrals where the altar was a good distance from the pews, acoustics simply did not allow the congregation to hear the words spoken at the altar.
People were still active in prayer during the Mass, but very often, especially in more solemn celebrations, the choir sang extended settings of the acclamations — the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, for example — while the priest had already moved on to other texts. And sometimes the congregation was involved in private prayer (reciting the Rosary or prayers from the missal) even as the choir sang and the priest prayed the Mass parts.
Bells were rung to alert the people to what they could not easily see or hear, so that they could attend to the important and solemn action at the altar. Today, use of the bells is optional, since language, posture and acoustics generally permit the congregation to follow the action of the Mass. Still, many parishes continue ringing bells to underscore and draw attention to the solemnity of certain moments of this great prayer: the epiclesis (or calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine) and the consecration.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal has this to say about the practice: “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” (No. 150).