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.

Making Holy Week Holy–Preparing Your Heart

A clean heart create for me, God: renew in me a steadfast spirit.”

 

Taken from Psalm 51, it is the prayer of repentance and sets the tone for our entry into the celebration of the Triduum(the three day celebration of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil). It is a reminder that God’s grace is like a river of cleansing water. It is not too late to receive the grace of forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation. Your local parish probably has special times posted. The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is offering the sacrament from 10:00 a.m-6:00 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday with four priests available. See www.nationalshrine.com. The Franciscan Friars have confessions on the hour between 9:00 and 4:00 p.m. See www.myfranciscan.org.

 

Another practice of the heart is to calculate how much money you saved if you “gave up” something for Lent. In my case that daily cappuccino adds up to about $135.00. That makes a very nice contribution to my favorite charity or the poor box at church. I read something very interesting today. The fast of the Triduum is not so much the fast of a penitent but rather the fast of anticipation—of looking forward and readying ourselves for the celebration of Easter. It made me ask myself what should change in how I fast the next couple of days. What does an anticipation fast look like?  If God is promising a steadfast spirit, what might a steadfast spirit look like for me?

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A special tradition follows the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday. It is a period of adoration inviting people to do what the disciples who were with Jesus in the garden could not do—to stay and pray with him. Can we be different and pray with our Lord? Most churches will be open until 9:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. Why not plan to stay? There was a practice a generation or so ago to visit seven churches on Holy Thursday evening. Why not choose two or three near you to visit?                                     

 

This blog began as part of our campaign to extend invitations to people we know who have been away from the Church to come back to Mass. If you’ve been meaning to ask someone, why not consider inviting that person to one our Holy Week services.

 

“Restore my joy in your salvation; sustain in me a willing spirit.”

 

 

 

Making Holy Week Holy

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Fr. Bill Byrne, Pastor at St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill sure had good news to share at Mass yesterday. In his homily, he said that if we’ve come to these final days of Lent disappointed with our failure to keep our Lenten fast or we gave up on the practice we took up in the early days of Lent, all is not lost. There is plenty of God’s mercy and grace to be received in the days ahead!

 

To receive those graces, we need to set aside time in our schedule for prayer and for participation in our parish services. I suggest you begin by making a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the quiet of these first few days of Holy Week.

 

Pope Benedict XVI in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy writes that with the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, our churches are never empty, lifeless spaces. “Jesus is always there, waiting, watching, wanting to make us Eucharist.” Take a few minutes today or tomorrow or Wednesday to stop in and spend some time in the quiet of the church or chapel asking the Lord to help you enter into the holiest days of the Church year open to all he is waiting to share with you.

 

Christ bore our sins in his own body on the cross so that we might die to sin

 and be alive to all that is good.

Post-Abortion Healing

Among those who have fallen away from the practice of the faith are some who feel in some way that the Church has rejected them or disapproves of something they have done or are doing. Of those who feel this way are some who have struggled with abortion, one of the great moral issues of our day. Without doubt or compromise the Church prophetically announces that abortion is a great evil since it is the taking of innocent human life. And yet we in the Church also announce God’s mercy and compassion for all who have struggled with abortion (or any sin) and fallen. As Pope John Paul wrote in 1995 to those who have had or participated in abortion: The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. (Evangelium Vitae, 99).  

 If you are a woman, or a man, who, in the aftermath of abortion, has struggled with guilt or shame. If you have a fear of rejection and so have stayed away from the Church please understand this: God has never failed to love you and neither have we. Despite the Church’s prophetic stand against abortion, we are just as adamant about mercy and forgiveness. It is the heart of the Church’s ministry to celebrate God’s healing and forgiveness. It has been my privilege as a priest to reconcile many women and men who have, at some point in the past, chosen abortion. God is rich in mercy and it is a great joy to announce, celebrate and confer that mercy.

Please know that there are priests and laity who stand ready to assist you in you in the possible and likely struggles that ensue after an abortion. Understanding, mercy and healing are offered in the Church, not only at the parish level and in confession but also through a ministry known as Project Rachel. It is a healing ministry to  women and some men as well who deal with the many hurts that often emerge after an abortion. Sometimes these feelings occur immediately after the abortion, sometimes years later. Project Rachel Ministry makes referrals for one-on-one meetings with a priest especially sensitive to the needs of someone healing from abortion decisions, and also makes referrals to professional counselors, offers days of prayer and healing, and a support group. The next day of prayer and healing in English is Saturday, June 27, and the next day of prayer and healing in Spanish is Saturday, May 30. Know that you are not alone and there is healing for your soul. Project Rachel takes its name from a passage in scripture in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 31:15 In Ramah is heard the sound of moaning, of bitter weeping! Rachel mourns her children,she refuses to be consoled because her children are no more. Thus says the LORD: Cease your cries of mourning, wipe the tears from your eyes. The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward…There is hope for your future.

Here is the essential thought to end this post with: If you have had an abortion, the Lord loves you and so do we in the Church. If you wish to seek counseling and help, there are many ready to help you from the parish priest to trained experts and kindred souls in Project Rachel. Don’t stay away because you think you’re rejected. You are loved and your presence and gifts in the Church are needed.

Locally in Washington the phone number for Project Rachel is 301-982-2008 or 202-269-4673. The Website is here Project Rachel

The following video depicts the journeys of a few women. This is their own testimony. It may not be your exact experience, but just so you know that others have made the journey too.

Stations of the Cross

stations-of-the-crss1At a talk with a group of young adults, someone asked about the history of the Stations of the Cross and I did not have an answer! I certainly pray the Stations of the Cross and when I go into a church for the first time, I like to take a look at that Church’s stations because there are such a wide variety of styles. When I was a student in Rome, one of my most memorable experiences was praying the Stations of the Cross at the Roman Coliseum on Good Friday with Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul had the practice of inviting different groups of people to write the reflections to accompany the stations. The year I participated, he had invited Catholic journalists to be the writers. One of my housemates who wrote for a German Catholic newspaper was chosen as a writer. For all of the discussions we had about the Stations of the Cross as we helped her prepare, you would think I would have learned something about their origin.

 

A Long Tradition

 

The tradition dates back to the 11th century when it became popular for Christians to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. In fact, one of the oldest accounts of a Holy Landpilgrimage is written by A Spanish woman named Egeria. These pilgrims desired to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, particularly, the path of his crucifixion and death (Via Crucis). During the 12th and 13th centuries when it became unsafe to travel to the Holy Land, many churches throughout Europe created an outdoor devotion with stations that depicted the life of Jesus. These stations numbered as few as five and as many as twenty. As the devotion grew in popularity, Pope Clement XII (1730-1740) set the number at 14. It wasn’t until the 18th century that churches began to place the stations on the inside walls.  Some of you who are very observant will note that many churches have added a 15th station for the resurrection.

 

Praying the Stations of the Cross

Friday is the traditional day to pray the Stations—in memory of Jesus’ death, however they can be prayed at any time. This Lent, Archbishop Wuerl, in his recording of the Stations has made it possible to pray at your desk or in your home. See http://www.adw.org/parishes/pdf/09Lent_stations.pdf. For a written resource see www.usccb.org/nab/stations.shtml

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours

We received a question about how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. It is a great opportunity to talk about this form of prayer that has been central to the Catholic prayer tradition for more than 1,000 years.  Praying the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office as it is also called has its roots in Jewish prayer tradition and the tradition of Jesus to dedicate certain hours of the day to prayer. In the Acts of the Apostles we read “the apostles gathered at the third hour” (Acts 2:1-15). “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1).

 

What is the Liturgy of the Hours

The Liturgy of the Hours is prayer that is composed of hymns, psalms, Old and New Testament canticles, prayers, Scriptural and spiritual readings from the writings of the Church Fathers and Church documents. The hymns, psalms and canticles are designed to be chanted or recited. Many religious communities’ rule require they pray all seven hours(Office, Morning, Midmorning, Midday, Midafternoon, Evening and Night prayer). In recent years more and more lay people have discovered and are praying the Liturgy of the Hours either alone, with their family or as part of their parish’s prayer. It is a very important part of my and my husband’s prayer life, something we began while we were dating and have never stopped. A colleague shared that he prays the Hours while he is up in the middle of the night feeding a hungry baby or sitting with a restless child. It is such a celebration of the universal dimension of our Catholic faith that all over the world “the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God” (Constitution on Sacred Liturgy).

 

How to Pray the Liturgy of the Hours

The Liturgy of the Hours consists of a four-volume set. Within each volume there are four sections. The first section is particular to the day. The second section gives detailed instruction for each hour and contains the prayers that do not change from day to day. The third section includes a four-week cycle that complements the first section. The fourth section is devoted to the feast days of saints and feasts of the Church.

 

For people who may not pray all seven hours there is a volume called Christian Prayer or Shorter Christian Prayer that is composed of Morning, Evening and Night Prayer and designed with the lay person in mind. 

 

With the growing popularity of the Liturgy of the Hours as a practice of daily prayer, a modified version is called Magnificat. Magnificat  is a “pocket-sized” monthly booklet. It contains Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer, readings for the Mass of the Day and spiritual reflections, including a reflection on a piece of Christian art. See www.magnificat.com

 

Praying the Hours takes some practice, though all of the volumes mentioned have helpful instructions. Another way to learn is to see if a parish near your home or work prays Morning or Evening Prayer. I am sure that your pastor or another person on the pastoral staff would not mind taking a few minutes to walk you through the structure. Keep in mind there is really no wrong way of praying when your mind and heart are lifted to God.

 

Please post a comment and share how you have made the Liturgy of the Hours part of your prayer life.