Substituting the Psalm

On Tuesday, Fr Edward McNamara, regular liturgy contributor for the Catholic news site Zenit, published his usual “Q & A” style liturgy column for the week.  This week’s article responded to the submitted question of whether a song, perhaps relating to the second reading or the gospel, could be used in place of the responsorial psalm.

Fr McNamara quite rightly answered this question in the negative, referring to no. 61 in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

This matter of the responsorial psalm is frequently misunderstood by music ministers and others.

The main reason for this, I believe, is that in the celebration of Mass, music is normally used with a ritual action.  We typically see music accompany processions and the like.  Yet in the case of the Responsorial Psalm, the music is the ritual action.  A clear understanding of the parts of the Mass and their purpose is crucial.

The notion that the psalm can be replaced with another song doesn’t wash when we consider the responsorial psalm first and foremost as a proclamation of scripture, which is what it is.  That is why it is a part of the Liturgy of the Word.  We have quite rightly encouraged the use of music at the responsorial psalm because the psalms have always been the “songbook” of the Jewish faith from which they originate.  Yet if those who make the music selections, and those who sing the psalm forget that at this point of the Mass, their primary duty is to proclaim the scriptures, then it’s all too easy to start thinking that “it’s okay to use another song instead.”

To sing the psalm of the day each week does require sound resourcing and commitment on the part of music ministers, and not all parishes can sustain this while ensuring the psalm is proclaimed well.  In consideration of this, the liturgical documents do offer alternatives:

  • Common or Seasonal Psalms. Not all parishes may be able to learn all the psalms in the lectionary, but learning a collection of core psalm repertoire for each season of the year is by no means impossible.  There are only 20 common psalms for all four seasons of the Church year (which isn’t much given that’s every Sunday across the three-year cycle).  Our own parish music suggestions resources recommend a common psalm for each Sunday.
  • Psalms in Metrical Form. Many composers have set psalms to more song- or hymn-like forms of music, which music ministers may find easier to learn and use with their assemblies.  Take care, however, with such settings where it says the lyrics at “Based on…” the psalm.  Some composers alter or vary the words of the psalm, and some may bear little resemblance the the version you will find in the lectionary.  Others are much more faithful to the psalm text, and/or quote it directly.
  • Chant. I’m not saying you need to learn Gregorian chant here.  If you do have music for the response, then with knowledge of a few chords, you can easily chant the lines of the psalm on a single note.  The psalms of Michel Guimont may help here, but they can be even simpler than that if you wish.
  • Sing the Response Only. If your parish lacks the resources to sing the entire psalm, then perhaps the best alternative is to sing the response only, then have a Minister of the Word proclaim the verses from the lectionary.

Like all things in liturgy, the documents set forth the principles and guidelines that underpin what we do and articulate for us an ideal to strive for.  Given the great diversity within our Church, we also have some accommodations that allow us strive towards those ideals in light of the nature of each worshipping community.  The Responsorial Psalm is a case in point.  Although I would recommend to any liturgical musician that they visit their nearest Catholic bookstore that sells music (such as Pauline Books and Media, for example) and look at the collections of psalms that are available.  A number of composers have set the entire three-year Sunday cycle of psalms to music, and some are quite simple and straightforward to use.

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