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The Responsorial Psalm
As you read the following quote, try to imagine who, or what sort of person, might have expressed these sentiments:
“Psalms and hymns were my first taste of inspirational music. I liked the words, but I wasn’t sure about the tunes – with the exception of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’. I remember them as droned and chanted rather than sung. But they prepared me for the honesty of John Lennon, the baroque language of Bob Dillon and Leonard Cohen, the open throat of Al Green and Stevie Wonder. When I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for – my ‘soul’, I guess.
“Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do – they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, girls, my mates, the way into my spirit was a combination of words and music. As a result, the Book of Psalms always felt open to me and led me to the poetry of Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, the book of John. My religion could not be fictional, but it had to transcend facts. It could be mystical, but not mythical.”
Many readers might be surprised to learn that these words, which appear in the Introduction to The Book of Psalms published by Canongate, were written by Bono, real name Paul Hewson, lead singer with U2, the rock group from Dublin.
Such testimony to the influence that singing the psalms can have on faith throws into question the practice in some parishes of replacing the responsorial psalm with a hymn which may or may not bear some relation to the psalm set down for the day or to the first reading.
The responsorial psalm is not some sort of musical interlude between the first and second readings at Mass. It is one of the readings from sacred scripture that make up the Liturgy of the Word.
We would never think of replacing the proclamation of the Gospel at Mass with a paraphrased version read from a book of Bible stories or with a nice story with a similar ‘theme’ to the Gospel text. Why should the Psalms be treated any differently?
According to the Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, the responsorial psalm should be sung (#20). Doing so is made simpler by taking up the option of using common seasonal psalms, not by substituting a hymn for the psalm. These common psalms are to be found in the section of the Lectionary entitled Common Texts for Sung Responsorial Psalms.
Parish musicians have numerous accessible and singable musical settings of the psalms available to them these days, so there is no need to resort to replacing the psalm of the day with a hymn.
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 psalm stimulates reflection upon God’s saving deeds and serves both as a prolongation and reiteration of the scriptural text it accompanies.