The Mass in Slow Motion – Responsorial Psalm

We have already discussed how the Old Testament Reading, the Epistle and Gospel came to be in their place and how the number and variety of those readings varied over the years and even today in the various Rites and Forms of the Liturgy. Now we consider the Responsorial Psalm which has a history of its own.

In a way, if you were to walk into Mass for the first time you might find the presence of a sung psalm a bit odd. Here we are reading the Word of God and suddenly another song breaks out! What is going on here. Is it another reading, is it a prayer. What is its purpose? Well let us read and see.

The responsorial psalm or optional  “gradual”  comes after the first reading. The psalm is an integral part of the liturgy of the word and is ordinarily taken from the lectionary, since these texts are directly related to and depend upon the respective readings. The cantor of the psalm sings the verse at the lectern or other suitable place, while the people remain seated and listen. Ordinarily the congregation takes part by singing the response, unless the psalm
is sung straight through without response. If sung, the following texts may be chosen:

  1. the psalm in the lectionary,
  2. The Gradual in the Roman Gradual,
  3. or the Antiphon or the psalm in the Simple Gradual

History – In the early Church there was a pattern to the psalm response much like our own today. That is to say, there was an antiphon or verse sung by all followed by extended verses of a particular psalm chosen for the day with the antiphon intervening every so often by way of a response. Many of the Fathers of the Church make mention of this format. St. Augustine makes explicit mention of the practice in his sermons; likewise, St. John Chrysostom and St. Leo the Great among others. In the early days, the psalm texts were sung in their entirety. This was true even of the lengthier psalms. (Today, there are usually selected  verses of the psalm used. It is rare that a whole psalm be sung unless it be brief in itself). The responsorial psalm was seen as an integral part of the liturgy with its own significance. This is in contrast to some of the other singing we have previously discussed such as the Entrance Antiphon (Introit) which was sung originally to cover a movement or fill a space of time and set a tone. In this way it existed for a purpose beyond itself. Here the chant has an importance in itself and does not exist to cover motion etc.  It was seen as a moment of pious meditation, a lyrical rejoicing after the word of  God had been received into the heart of the believer. Originally the deacon was the singer of this psalm and versicle. Later the task moved to the subdeacon & later still to the schola Cantorum (Choir).

It is interesting to note that when the singer mounted the lectern (or ambo, or pulpit) he did not go all the way to the top of the platform but rather stood on one of the steps just below the platform.This was once again due to the reverence given the proclamation of the Gospel which alone was proclaimed from the top platform. Since the singer stood on a step (“gradus“, in Latin) the psalm came to be known as a “Graduale.”

Over time the responsorial psalm began to shrink in size and lose its responsorial character. This seems to have happened for two reasons.

First the music for these chants began to become more and more elaborate. We saw this tendency with the Entrance Antiphon. The simple forms slowly gave way to other, more elaborate forms.  Thus, the antiphon which was intended for the people became more ornate and difficult and thus slipped from their grasp. Its execution fell more frequently to the schola. Likewise, as the antiphon became more elaborate it began to overshadow the verses of the psalm themselves which were sheered away slowly. Eventually only one verse remained along with the antiphon. This remained its form until the recent changes in the Mass at Vatican II.

A second factor seems to have been the dropping of the first reading from the Old Testament in the Sixth Century. By this time however the responsorial character of the psalm was well on its way out. Thus this effect may not be direct but may help explain that other factors were at work in the background.

Today the original responsorial format has been reintroduced as an option. This therefore returns to the more ancient practice and also makes the response once again a song or response of the assembly. However, the option still exists to use a Gradual in the from the Graduale Romanum which retains the  format of the Traditional Latin Mass instead of a responsorial format. This would generally have to be sung by a trained schola.

Pastoral Reflections – It is true to say that the Psalm is “another reading” in the sense that the psalm, like the other readings comes from the scriptures, the written Word of God. However, a caution is in order. The psalm should also be seen to enhance the prayer and praise that is integral to the Liturgy of the Word. Thus, it is not merely a “listening event” but also involves prayer and praise in the truest sense of the term.  The psalms were (and still are) the prayer book of the Jews and it is our prayer book as well. Hence, the psalm is prayer and not only “another reading.”

The title “responsorial psalm” is not given because there is a response or antiphon for the people to sing. The “response” referred to is the reflection of the assembly on the proclamation of the reading which just took place. The psalm is usually related in some direct way to the theme of the Old Testament reading (and by that very fact to the Gospel which is to come). Thus, the people “respond” to the Word of God, make it their own and proclaim it prayerfully. By its nature, the psalm is a song and should thus be sung if at all possible; especially on Sunday.

The option of using the gradual from the Graduale Romanum should not be forgotten. There is once again the need to remember that a glorious heritage of Gregorian Chants exists which belongs to faithful by their right. It is sad if this heritage is never heard or sampled. However, it will be admitted that these Chants are difficult indeed and require a skilled choir. This and the fact that they are  in Latin can make them less accessible. This usually means that the Graduals are seldom if ever done in the average parish. Again, a sad loss that a little extra training might overcome.

OK, so bottom line is once again the same: YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO PRAY. The Liturgy is not just some ritual to get through, it is a time of prayer. The Psalm response or gradule is meant to invite you into a prayerful response. Are you praying? Next time you’re at Mass, don’t miss the main point here.

The following video is of a Gradual. In the place of the more common “Responsorial Psalm” it is always permited to sing the “Gradual” which is an elaborate antiphon and one verse of the psalm. The one in this video is from the Vigil Mass for Christmas here is the text in Latin and an English Translation:

Hodie scietis, quia veniet Dominus, et salvabit nos: et mane videbitis gloriam eius. Qui regis Israel, intende: qui deducis velut ovem Ioseph: qui sedes super Cherubim, appare coram Ephraim, Beniamin, et Manasse.

Today you will know that the Lord is coming to save us: and tomorrow you shall see his glory. Thou that rulest Israel, hear us: thou that leadest Joseph like a flock, thou that sittest upon the Cherubim – appear Thou to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasse.

4 Replies to “The Mass in Slow Motion – Responsorial Psalm”

  1. Excellent article. Just one minor point. I think, technically, the Responsorial Psalm, is so called because of the manner in which it is sung or said. The GI on the Liturgy of the Hours allows 3 methods of singing the psalms in the Office: Antiphonally, Directly, or Responsorially. You quote from the GI of the Roman Missal that at mass, psalms may be sung with a response or straight through. If the psalm is sung straight through, then I’m not sure it is correctly termed a “Responsorial Psalm”. Some I’m sure would say that it is then a “Gradual”, but I don’t know if we still use this word. Psalms originally separated the scriptural readings, ie. two readings, one psalm or three readings, two psalms. I don’t think they were connected particularly to the previous reading rather than the following reading. Otherwise you might expect three readings, three psalms. Why would (or why does) the Old Testament reading or Epistle warrant a psalm/prayer response, but the Gospel not? Most people seem to agree that the Alleluia or Tract which now greets the Gospel originally started out as the second psalm between the second reading and the Gospel. I don’t dispute that the psalm is now intended to be a response to the previous reading, but I don’t think that has anything to do with the word “Responsorial”.

  2. Oct.25,2013 at11.45 am. Love the psalms* An everyday part of my day* Some have dropped the psalm of the day from the readings at mass,+ Hopefully this will be brought back* Reading this article has made me aware of the importance of the part of prayer necessary for responding in the mass, being the highest form of prayer the mass Thanks be to our Judeo-Christian roots, our Jewish brothers and sisters, the psalms ,in the Liturgy of the Hours, is the prayer of the church of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior+ Praised be his Holy name now and forever through out Eternity+ AMEN* Barbara <3

  3. Some people object to responsorial psalms, but if one takes a look at the prescribed texts and then the texts in the gradual, you’ll often find that the Psalm response is the same as the gradual text and more verses of the same psalm are sung. The real problem is that there have been very many trite and musically poor tunes selected for the singing of the responsorial psalm. One should not discount the possibility of chanting responsorial psalms (even the response verses) to the office psalm tones. I have been doing this in an ordinary parish church for some months with great success. The psalm tones soon become familiar to the congregation.

    I’d be interested to find out why there was no Gloria Patri prescribed for the graduals and why they don’t exist in the offertory either, as everywhere else where psalms are chanted the doxology is found.

  4. In the earlier days of English in the Mass, (1984, for example) the Psalm was chanted, not song, with a simplified Gregorian-style chant. The Missalette had notations for rising tone (acute mark) falling tone (grave mark) or fourth interval down (macron). This is a very traditional Catholic sound, and I miss it! Much better than the unusual “music” that accompanies the Psalm these days! Is it forbidden to go back to this, and if not, does anyone publish a Missalette nowadays that supports this?

    (Not a priest, just a parishioner who would like to bring the spirit of holiness back to the Church.)


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