The Problem with Psalms - 16th August 2015

A Religious Education coordinator preparing a school Mass for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary rang Liturgy Brisbane to tell us that our “Daily Mass Book” has the wrong psalm for the Vigil Mass. It is shown as Psalm 131: 6-7, 9-10, 13-14 but in her bible Psalm 131 has only three verses. The lady also asked it if was permissible to sing a Marian hymn instead of the psalm because she could not find a good musical setting of the psalm.

Confusion about psalm numbering is not uncommon. The popular psalm “The Lord Is My Shepherd” is listed in the bible as Psalm 23 and generally known by that number. Many people would be surprised to learn that it is labeled Psalm 22 in the Catholic Lectionary and in people’s missals.

The problem comes about because, since the promulgation of the Latin Bible (Vulgate) in the 6th century, the Roman Catholic Church has for some reason followed the numbering and division of the psalms used by the Greek translation of the Scriptures (known as the Septuagint) whereas the scriptures used by other Christian traditions follow the division and numbering of the psalms in the Hebrew text.

Psalms 9 and 10 in the Hebrew text were combined into one psalm in the Greek Bible, so from Psalm 9 onwards, the Roman Catholic psalm numbers are one less than those in other versions. Because Psalm 147 of the Jewish psalms is split into two separate psalms in the Septuagint, the total number of psalms in both finishes up being the same – 150. However, only the first 8 and the last 3 psalms agree in numbering.

As for singing a Marian hymn instead of the psalm, it is just as inappropriate to replace the psalm with a hymn as it would be to sing a song instead of the Gospel or any other scripture reading at Mass. That is, of course, unless the hymn is actually a musical setting of that psalm.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal 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).

The psalm assigned to the first reading frequently has a thematic or liturgical relationship to it 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)

Although many simple musical settings of the psalms are available, 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, which means that parishes can, for example, use the same psalm throughout the four Sundays of Advent or the six Sundays of Lent.

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.



Elizabeth Harrington