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The Responsorial Psalm
The Macquarie and Collins Dictionaries both give as their first definition of the word psalm: “(usually cap.) any of the 150 songs, hymns and prayers which together form a book of the Old Testament (Book of Psalms)”.
It is this sort of Psalm, the one with a capital “P”, which comes after the first reading in the Liturgy of the Word, not a psalm with a lower case “p” which can be any sacred song, hymn or poem.
I have been surprised to find that in some parishes the Liturgy Committee has been instructed to use the Responsorial Psalm given in the Lectionary or “a hymn suggested by the Psalm”. Several times I have heard people refer to the Responsorial Psalm as “the song we sing between the readings at Mass”.
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” (GIRM 2000 #61).The same paragraph goes on to say this about selecting the psalm to use:
The responsorial psalm should correspond to each reading and should customarily be taken from the Lectionary. In order, however, that the people may be able to join in the psalm response more readily, some texts of responses and psalms have been chosen, according to the different seasons of the year and classes of Saints, which may be used in place of the text corresponding to the reading whenever the psalm is sung.The following may also be sung in place of the psalm assigned in the Lectionary: either the responsorial gradual from the Graduale Romanum or the responsorial psalm or the Alleluia psalm from the Graduale Simplex in the form described in these books.
A metrical (or hymn) setting of the psalm text can certainly be used. However we should no more replace the biblical psalm with a hymn “suggested” by the words than we would replace any of the other scriptural readings of the liturgy with a hymn. “The choice of the texts which are not from the Psalter (the book containing the psalms for liturgical use) is not extended to the chants between the readings” (Music in Catholic Worship #63).
“As a rule the responsorial psalm should be sung” (Lectionary for Mass: Introduction #20). This is facilitated by the option of using common seasonal psalms as explained above, not by substitution a hymn for the psalm. These psalms are to be found in the Lectionary under Common Texts for Sung Responsorial Psalms”.
Very frequently the psalm assigned to the first reading has a thematic or liturgical relationship to it. Where this is not the case, the Lectionary appoints certain other psalms so that the assembly may make contact with as wide a range of the 150 psalms as possible.
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 community uses God’s word as a response to God’s word. It is for this reason that the psalm is never replaced by a text which is not from the Psalter. The psalm stimulates reflection upon God’s saving deeds and serves both as a prolongation and reiteration of the scriptural text it accompanies.