Utilizing Handbells in Various Components of Catholic Worship

by Lindsey Horty

To some handbell musicians, the Catholic mass is the type of worship they are most familiar with, while to other handbell musicians it seems completely foreign. As complex as it may appear to non-Catholics, even Catholic musicians have been historically perplexed on how to incorporate handbells into Catholic worship, particularly since Vatican II. The incorporation of handbells into Catholic liturgy has increased more and more each decade since Vatican II, where the Roman mass in the United States began to be recited in English and not Latin. During Vatican II, a new spirit of worship emerged where the Catholic liturgy became more inclusive to congregational participation. People were encouraged to sing and listen to music to enhance their worship. Music was not to be inserted just to cover actions or fill time, but to fully integrate into the continual sequence of mass parts. I hope this article will give church musicians some insights to the development of music in Catholic liturgy and how to integrate handbells into the liturgy.

Since Vatican II, new types of music have been allowed into the Roman mass. Common publishers of Catholic music include GIA Publications, Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), and World Library Publications (WLP). Historically, while many of the same hymn tunes have been used among the Catholic and Protestant churches, different words have been written for hymns within the different Christian denominations. As handbell compositions increased in the 1970s and 1980s, their use was mostly targeted for Protestant denominations, particularly because the Catholic mass was just learning how to incorporate music in English, and so much of the handbell music available to church musicians did not fit Catholic music needs. On the other hand, Catholic composers were not thinking about writing for handbells either because they were not very prominent in Catholic churches. Handbells were generally only written into mass parts or other choral pieces as single handbell notes or chords requiring only a few bells. Catholic handbell pieces for a full choir were rare.

This changed when Jeffrey Honoré published Handbells in the Catholic Liturgy in 1999 as a supplement to Hal Hopson’s The Creative Use of Handbells in Worship (Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188, #2120). For the first time, church musicians had a reproducible book with over sixty examples of music that could be used with Catholic hymns and mass parts. It also highlighted other ways to incorporate handbells into Catholic worship, such as using handbells to give pitches to singers, intoning an introduction to a hymn or mass part, and ringing chords for the responsorial psalms. These are still great, simple ways to incorporate handbells into Catholic worship. Since Honoré’s publication, more publishing companies have increased their handbell music offerings in the last 15 years, including the publishers I mentioned above. In particular, GIA Publications now offers Catholic hymns for full choirs through their Resounding Faith series and also offer hymn arrangements for two to three octave handbell choirs for their hymnals. Other publishers also have more handbell parts available as well. Additionally, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) has a handbell festival at their national conference every few years that brings Catholic handbell ringers together. Consider attending and learning more for your church.

So now that handbell music for Catholic hymns is as available as never before, let’s discuss where and how to include the instrument within worship. Aside from the sung Mass Acclamations, the largest musical pieces in Catholic liturgy are the hymns. There are four main hymns in every Catholic mass: the Gathering hymn, the hymn during the Presentation of Gifts, the hymn during the Communion procession, and the Closing hymn. As stated above, since Vatican II the hymns have become the main songs for assembly participation. Therefore, it is ideal to have congregational singing during these hymns and is essentially required for the Gathering hymn and the hymn during the Communion procession. This is why handbell arrangements for the Catholic hymnals are crucial to the life of handbells existing in Catholic worship. These allow the handbell choir to play along with the organ or piano and the congregation. Hymnal arrangements for handbells are also great to play during the hymn for the Presentation of Gifts (congregants present the bread, wine, and offerings for the mass); however, in more recent years, this hymn has been used by some parishes for solo pieces by the musicians (choral choir, guitar ensembles, and handbell choirs). Allowing instrumental pieces at this time in the Liturgy is the prerogative of the music director or priest and is more commonly accepted as long as the music still allows the assembly to continue their worship. Another opportunity for handbell choirs to play a solo piece is during the second Communion hymn or the Communion meditation song. Some music directors incorporate a second hymn or “special music” as the Communion procession is ending. Handbell ringers would process forward and receive Communion during the first Communion hymn and then prepare themselves to play special music after the Communion hymn. In conclusion, the best opportunities for handbell choirs to ring include: ringing along with congregational hymns, providing meditative music at the time of the Presentation of Gifts, and incorporating a solo handbell composition for the Communion meditation song.

Now that we’ve discussed the opportunities for hymns, I will mention a few other ways to incorporate handbells. The key musical elements of the Catholic Liturgy are the mass parts or acclamations: Glory to God; Gospel Acclamation; Holy, Holy, Holy; Memorial Acclamation; Amen; Lamb of God). These are short responses sung throughout the liturgy. Some mass parts come with handbell accompaniments that can be used, or other instrumental parts for a C instrument can be adapted to or played on handbells. Another way to incorporate handbells is during the Responsorial Psalm, sung by the cantor between the First Reading and Second Reading. Many of the common psalm responses now have handbell parts available through the hymnal publisher, or the refrains and accompaniment chords on the verses can be played on handbells instead of piano. Lastly, bell peals can be played for processionals (i.e. Pentecost Sunday Processional) that could be written by the music/handbell director, or bell tolls can be used for funerals or memorial services. In fact, my choir recently recorded a change ring bell peal in our sanctuary that is played through our church bell tower speakers.

With greater understanding of the Catholic Liturgy, exploring handbell music from music publishers, and the use of your musical imagination, the opportunities to incorporate handbells into the Catholic liturgy are endless.


Lindsey Horty has been ringing handbells for 18 years since starting in middle school. She helped start a handbell choir at St. Mary of the Knobs Catholic Church in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, when she was in high school. This experience exposed her to a vast amount of liturgical music, and she was a part of the liturgy planning team for youth masses. Lindsey continued her ringing at the University of Indianapolis in beginning and advanced handbell choirs, often teaching and directing inexperienced ringers. Additionally, she has been ringing with the Joyful Sound community handbell choir in Indianapolis since 2005. In recent years, Lindsey has taught classes and performed solos at national and regional handbell conferences. She has been the handbell director at St. Mark Catholic Church in Indianapolis since 2012 and has served as the Indiana State Chair for Handbell Musicians of America since 2013. Lindsey has a strong passion for handbells in the Catholic liturgy, so feel free to email her with questions at Lindseybells26@yahoo.com.