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.

24/8/08 – Singing the Psalms

In talking about the World Youth Day Mass setting, Missa Benedictus qui venit, we discussed how that the people’s acclamations during Mass should always be sung whenever possible.  These acclamations include the gospel acclamation, Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy Lord…), Memorial Acclamation (e.g. Christ had died…) and Great Amen.

Another part of the Mass that is often sung at Masses with music is the Responsorial Psalm.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the following:

It is preferable that the responsorial Psalm be sung, at least as far as the people’s response is concerned. Hence, the psalmist, or the cantor of the Psalm, sings the verses of the Psalm from the ambo or another suitable place. The entire congregation remains seated and listens but, as a rule, takes part by singing the response, except when the Psalm is sung straight through without a response. (GIRM 61)

The reason for singing the responsorial psalm is historical.  The psalms are the songs and poetry of the Old Testament.  For centuries the Jewish people have always sung the psalms and would never consider reading them during worship.  Thus we sing the psalm in keeping with this heritage.

The responsorial psalm for each day is included in the lectionary with the other scripture readings.  It allows us to meditate and reflect on the scripture that has been selected for the day and is proclaimed at Mass.  The psalm is specifically chosen for that day, and it is that selection that should be sung whenever possible.  To meet pastoral needs and foster participation, however, alternatives can be chosen to the psalm of the day.  We will explain the use of seasonal or common psalms next week.