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The Responsorial Psalm
The psalms are both deeply personal and communal, drawing the assembled body into the work of the Trinity in the liturgy. Singing the psalms, the act of breathing the Spirit within us into the Word received in scripture, is a surrendering of ourselves to the will of the Father.
Hearing the psalms sung, and associating melody, harmony and rhythm with the word of God, helps make this word a part of us – part of our memories and part of our way of life. And in singing the psalm responses, we are drawn into the experience of the joy, the suffering and the glory of the mystery celebrated in the Eucharist. In this way, Christ transforms our hearts and minds.
What the Church Documents Say
1. What does the Directory for Masses with Children (DMC) say about the Psalms?
"Verses of psalms, carefully selected in accord with the understanding of children, or singing in the form of psalmody or the Alleluia with a simple verse should be sung between the readings. The children should always have a part in this singing, but sometimes a reflective silence may be substituted for the singing" (DMC, 46).
2. What does the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) say about the Psalms?
There are numerous references to psalms in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Presented here is the main paragraph on the Responsorial Psalm.
Other paragraphs related to psalms include paragraphs #37 (Responsorial Psalm an independent rite), #39 (importance of singing Responsorial Psalm), #43 (posture during the singing of the Responsorial Psalm), #48 (use of psalms for Entrance song), #57 (not lawful to replace Responsorial Psalm with non-Biblical texts), #62 (use of psalms instead of Alleluia during Lent), #63 (use of psalms when only one reading before the Gospel), #87 (use of psalms during communion procession), #88 (use of psalms of praise after communion), #99 (lector reciting psalms if no psalmist), #102 (ministry of psalmist), #309 (The Ambo is the preferred place for singing the Responsorial Psalm, #352 (Collaboration of ministers in planning the selection of texts for Mass, including the text for the Responsorial Psalm), #391 (Approval of translations for psalm texts).
The Responsorial Psalm
61. After the First Reading follows the Responsorial Psalm, which is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word and which has great liturgical and pastoral importance, since it fosters meditation on the Word of God.
The Responsorial Psalm should correspond to each reading and should usually be taken from the Lectionary.
It is preferable for the Responsorial Psalm to be sung, at least as far as the people’s response is concerned. Hence the psalmist, or cantor of the Psalm, sings the Psalm verses at the ambo or another suitable place, while the whole congregation sits and listens, normally taking part by means of the response, except when the Psalm is sung straight through, that is, without a response. However, in order that the people may be able to sing the Psalm response more easily, texts of some responses and Psalms have been chosen for the different times of the year or for the different categories of Saints. These may be used instead of the text corresponding to the reading whenever the Psalm is sung. If the Psalm cannot be sung, then it should be recited in a way that is particularly suited to fostering meditation on the Word of God.
Instead of the Psalm assigned in the Lectionary, there may be sung either the Responsorial Gradual from the Graduale Romanum, or the Responsorial Psalm or the Alleluia Psalm from the Graduale Simplex, as described in these books."
3. What does the Instruction for Music in the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram (MS) say about the Psalms?
"It is desirable that the assembly of the faithful should participate in the songs of the Proper as much as possible, especially through simple responses and other suitable settings.
The song after the lessons, be it in the form of gradual or responsorial psalm, has a special importance among the songs of the Proper. By its very nature, it forms part of the liturgy, of the Word. It should be performed with all seated and listening to it — and, even taking part, if possible" (MS, 33).
4. What does the Lectionary for Mass: Introduction (LMI) say about the Psalms?
"The responsorial psalm, also called the gradual, has great liturgical and pastoral significance because it is ‘an integral part of the liturgy of the word.’ Accordingly, the people must be continually instructed on the way to perceive the word of God speaking in the psalms and to turn these psalms into the prayer of the Church. This, of course, ‘will be achieved more readily if a deeper understanding of the psalms, in the meaning in which they are used in the liturgy, is more diligently promoted among the clergy and communicated to all the faithful by means of appropriate catechesis.’
A brief remark may be helpful about the choice of the psalm and response as well as their correspondence to the readings.
As a rule the responsorial psalm should be sung. There are two established ways of singing the psalm after the first reading: responsorially and directly. In responsorial singing, which, as far as possible, is to be given preference, the psalmist or cantor of the psalm sings the psalm verse and the whole congregation joins in by singing the response, In direct singing of the psalm there is no intervening response by the community; either the psalmist or cantor of the psalm sings the psalm alone as the community listens or else all sing it together.
The singing of the psalm, or even of the response alone, is a great help toward understanding and meditating on the psalm’s spiritual meaning.
To foster the congregation’s singing, every means available in the various cultures is to be employed. In particular use is to be made of all the relevant options provided in the Order of Readings for Mass regarding responses corresponding to the different liturgical seasons,
When not sung, the psalm after the reading is to be recited in a manner conducive to meditation on the word of God.
The responsorial psalm is sung or recited by the psalmist or cantor at the lectern" (LMI, 19-22).
Mason, Paul. Singing Our Sorrows with the Psalms of Lament Keynote Presentation (2005 Conference of the Australian Academy of Liturgy: Fremantle, WA, 18 January, 2005.Singing Our Sorrows with the Psalms of Lament