Sing Psalms to God


The pattern of the first main part of the Mass – the Liturgy of the Word – has become very familiar to us over the last 40 years. The structure that emerged in response to the desire of the Second Vatican Council to give greater emphasis to the reading of scripture in liturgy is: First Reading (usually from the Old Testament), Responsorial Psalm, Second Reading (from one of the New Testament epistles or letters), Gospel Acclamation, Gospel Reading, Homily, Profession of Faith (Creed), and Prayer of the Faithful.
I have attended several Masses where a hymn was sung after the first reading instead of a psalm. This would be appropriate if the hymn is a musical setting of the psalm, but usually that is not the case. I have actually heard people refer to the Responsorial Psalm as “the song we sing between the readings at Mass” and claim that “a hymn suggested by the words” can be used instead of the psalm set down for the day.
The Responsorial Psalm is one of the readings from sacred scripture that are proclaimed in liturgical celebrations. This is made clear in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal which describes the Psalm as “an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word which holds great liturgical and pastoral importance, because it fosters meditation on the word of God” (GIRM #61).
Just as we would never replace any of the other scriptural readings of the liturgy with something else, a hymn cannot be substituted for the biblical psalm. Because the community uses God’s word as a response to God’s word, the psalm is never replaced by a text which is not from the Psalter (the book containing the psalms for liturgical use).
The psalm assigned to the first reading frequently has a thematic or liturgical relationship to it. The psalm stimulates reflection upon God’s saving deeds and serves both as a continuation and reiteration of the scriptural text it accompanies.
The psalms were written to be sung and not to be said or recited. The Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass states clearly why it is preferable to sing the psalm:
“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.” (LMI 21)
Learning a new psalm each week can be difficult for the cantor as well as the assembly. That is why the General Instruction of the Roman Missal offers the option of using common seasonal psalms:
“In order that the people may be able to join in the psalm response more readily, texts of some responses and psalms have been chosen for the various seasons of the year or for the various categories of Saints. These may be used in place of the text corresponding to the reading whenever the Psalm is sung.” (GIRM 61)
The seasonal psalms are to be found in the Lectionary under Common Texts for Sung Responsorial Psalms. Many hymn books and psalm collections offer easily singable settings of these psalms.
Using psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in worship is as old as the Church itself and in fact was taken from the practice of the Jewish synagogue. The responsorial psalm is itself the word of God and the prayer of the Church through the ages.


Elizabeth Harrington