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.

26.2 for the building up of the Kingdom of God


Calling all marathoners, runners, walkers, and wanna-be runners. Are you looking for a better reason to get out of bed and go for that morning run? Are you looking for any reason to take your work-out more seriously? How about running for the building up of the kingdom of God? The Archdiocese of Washington’s Vocation Office is sponsoring a run for vocations to assist in the spiritual and financial support of our seminarians—and that is a great cause.

I am not a serious runner these days and so when a couple of people with whom I eat lunch said they were going to sign on, I thought, well, why not? It might make me more disciplined about my running if I have to “confess” my progress to Msgr. Panke and my colleagues.  Not the most spiritual of reasons but it got me to an informational meeting.

Spiritual Motivation

At the meeting I heard some really beautiful stories about how much this run means to people. One woman spoke of how a serious accident confined her to home for a long period. Her pastor was so great about bringing Communion to her, that she volunteered to run and raise funds as a way to thank God for the gift of her pastor. A man spoke of how his running was sporadic and grinding but he couldn’t say “no” to Msgr. Panke when Msgr. Panke asked if he would run the marathon. He talked about how much more meaningful his running became when he began offering it up for the cause. Some people spoke of the new friends they have made and how much it has meant to them to get to know the archdiocesan seminarians.

It’s not too late to sign-on. We are looking for as many people as possible to run or walk the Marine Corps Marathon and 10k on October 25, 2009. Our Young Adult Ministry is putting together a team and groups for practice runs are forming in Upper Montgomery County and in the city.

The Promise of Prayers

Now, you can join a lot of running groups and even fundraising running programs but none of those programs through in the promise and power of prayer with training tips. If you are interested, please contact the Vocations Office at 301-853-4580 or

As of this posting you have 157 days and 16 hours to train. Surely, you can find the time. See you at the finish line.

Diversity on Display

praise2Here is a glimpse at some art and gospel music from the African American Tradition. Most of these images are of the Protestant traditions but in the African American Catholic Parishes there is a significant borrowing from especially Gospel Music.  For example in my own Parish of Holy Comforter – St. Cyprian we are singing the song featured here to begin our Year-long preparation for a major evangelization program. Come and Go With Me, to My Father’s House!

Vocations Anyone? A Glimpse into Monastic and Religious Life

There is a Website: which assists those discerning a call to the Consecrated life and also to the Monastic life. In short order this website details the differences between contemplative and active orders. It also names those communities and supplies to links to other websites that discuss more of each order. There are practical steps for discernment along with many pictures and videos. Take time to visit the site.

What is daily Monastic life like? The site helps answer this question by noting that the schedules of religious communities  share basic similarities. A typical daily schedule (horarium) may look something like the following;

5:15 AM, Rise, Private Prayer
6:00 AM, Divine Office (Lauds / Prime; Morning Prayer)
6:45 AM, Spiritual Reading (Lectio Divina)
7:30 AM, Mass
8:15 AM, Breakfast
9:15 AM, Morning Chores / Classes
11:30 AM, Divine Office (Terce; Mid-Morning Prayer)
12:00 PM, Lunch (with spiritual readings)
12:30 PM, Free Time / Siesta
1:30 PM, Divine Office (Sext, None; Midday Prayer)
2:00 PM, Work / Apostolate
5:00 PM, Divine Office (Vespers; Evening Prayer)
5:45 PM, Private Study / Meditation
7:00 PM, Dinner
8:15 PM, Divine Office (Compline; Night Prayer)
9:00 PM, Lights Out

Here is a  short vocational video on traditional monastic life, available at the site which shows scenes  from the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault,  and featuring the singing of  “Alleluia Vir Dei Benedictus omni”.

Update – WHUT To Cancel Mass for Shut-ins?

The following information  was supplied by Susan Gibbs, Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Washington in response to a reader who asked how they can help turn back a possible decision to cancel the TV Mass for shut-ins. The original article appeared in this blog here:  ORIGINAL ARTICLE Ms. Gibbs’ response  was posted in the comments section but in case you missed it, I want also to include it out here on the main page:

Thank you to everyone interested in helping the Mass. The archdiocese is committed to continuing to offer this ministry, though the cost of moving to a broadcast station, which is important to reach our homebound and elderly viewers, is really significant (it could be as high as $100,000 per year). In addition, it can be very difficult to move viewers to a new station. The Mass has been on air in the DC area for 60 years, and on WHUT since the mid-1990s.

We have been working with the Shrine on seeking a production grant, which would help if we could get it. Unlike televangelist programs, the Mass does not solicit donations on-air through an 800 number. This program truly is a service to the elderly and homebound so they can attend Mass (we have Catholic and non-Catholic viewers).

In terms of next steps, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and other faith groups are seeking a meeting with PBS. From what we understand, PBS reportedly has decided to implement membership policies that date to 1985 (24 years ago), but were never implemented. The policies would prevent their member stations from including religious programming as part of overall community programming, even if the local community wants it. Our Mass features participants from around the Washington region (DC, MD and VA) so it’s definitely a local program anda community service.

If you want to weigh in, the contact at WHUT is Jennifer Lawson, [email protected]. WHUT has been a wonderful partner in providing this community service since the mid-1990s. This change would be a real loss to our viewers.

Finally, if you are interested in being a part of the congregation, please join us. The next taping is June 4, 7:30 p.m. (we tape two half-hour Masses so expect to be there until 8:45 p.m.) at the Basilica Crypt Church. Email [email protected] if if you want a schedule for the tapings.

Update – L’Osservatore Romano and The Notre Dame Speech

Yesterday (see link to May 18 below) I featured excerpts from a Catholic News Service (CNS) article that summarized a rather upbeat review of the President’s speech at Notre Dame by the official paper of the Vatican L’Osservatore Romano. (MY ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE) Today CNS expanded on it’s coverage a bit and also pointed to another article more critcal of the speech, particularly in reference to Embryonic Stem Cell research. Here are a few excerpts from the CNS Article:

A few pages later, L’Osservatore Romano dedicates another, far more critical article of Obama’s stand on embryonic stem cell research, marking a clear departure from the somewhat positive evaluation the newspaper recently made of the President’s first 100 days. The article, titled “Campaign in the US against stem cells,” features the effort launched by the U.S. bishops, especially the web site of the USCCB, to oppose Obama’s new policy regarding the use of embryos for scientific research….[which]….reversed the decision of the Bush administration regarding the ban on (federal funding for) embryonic stem cell research, for the first time taxpayers’ money will be used to kill human beings in embryonic state to obtain stem cells.” In the article, L’Osservatore Romano extensively quotes Cardinal Justin Rigali and Archbishop Charles Chaput, one of the most vocal critics of Obama’s anti-life policies. “The Archbishop of Denver –the Vatican newspaper says- insists that ‘American public life cannot function if we keep our religious beliefs in the closet … the US does not need to be a Christian country, but it cannot survive if it is not open to solidarity and faith.” By expressing strong support to the U.S. bishops and quoting Archbishop Chaput’s recent conference at the Becket Fund dinner, L’Osservatore Romano has put to rest speculation that the Vatican was being “unsupportive” of the American Bishops’ strong criticism to Obama’s anti-life policies.

You can read the full CNS article here: CNS Full Article

Angels and Demons – Review by Fr. Barron

angels-and-demons-posterAnother movie quite unfair to Catholics and the Church has been released: Angels and Demons. It remains true that the attacks against the Catholic Church would never be tolerated against Muslims or Jews. Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians are also groups that it is OK to attack. None of the usual rule apply about bigotry or insensitivity, hate crimes etc when Catholics, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are the target.

The following review by Fr. Barron is helpful in sorting out the myth that the Church is somehow “anti-science.” By the way, skip the movie.  I read the book and while it is suspenseful in places it has a really stupid and unrealistic ending.

THe Mass in Slow Motion – The Liturgy of the Word

Every now and then it will be claimed that the Catholic Church is not a “Bible Believing Church.” Further, that Catholics do not know the Bible. Both claims register false when we look at the Mass. The Mass is filled with Scripture and Catholics know a lot more Scripture than they think they do. We may not be the sort to quote Chapter and Verse numbers but we know the scriptures. If I start to tell the story of Zaccheaus climbing the tree, or of Lazarus being raised from the dead, or of the woman at the well, or the storm at sea, or begin to quote from the Epistles, Catholics know these passages IF they go to Mass regularly. Over the period of three years the whole of the New Testament is read in the Catholic Liturgy and most of the significant passages of the Old Testament. We read A LOT of Scripture in every Mass and Catholics know more of the Bible than they think they do.

Now that the Congregation is seated, it is time to listen attenively to God’s Word. We do this in a part of the Mass called the Liturgy of the Word which in the current form of the Mass consists of and Old Testament Reading, a Psalm, a reading from a New Testament Epistle, and a reading from the Gospels. Then follows the Homily, the Creed and the prayer repsonse. In effect, readings from scripture and the chants between the readings form the main part of the liturgy of the word. The homily, profession of faith, and general intercessions or prayer of the  faithful develop and complete it. In the readings, explained by the homily God speaks to his people of redemption and salvation and nourishes their spirit; Christ is present among the faithful through his word. Through the chants the people make God’s word their own and express their adherence to it through the profession of faith. Finally, moved by this word, they pray in the general intercessions for the needs of the Church and for the world’s salvation.(cf G.I.R.M. # 55)

History of the liturgy of the word. The beginnings of this service go back the synagogue and it therefore pre-christian in origin. The Apostles attended the synagogue and were thus familiar with it. The synagogue was distinct from the Temple. The Temple was in Jerusalem and it was there alone that blood sacrifices were offered. However, after the exile especially The Jews undertook the practice of meeting in their local areas to read scripture and praise the Lord. The gatherings (or synagogues) varied in size but tended to be small groups. In fact, as we know from Scripture, Jesus himself faithfully attended the synagogue and his Apostles continued to follow his example. We read in Acts 2:46, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and breaking bread in their homes.

The Jewish synagogue service of the First Century may be described as follows. On appointed days, above all on the Sabbath, the community was  assembled. The Assembly was opened with the Shema which served as a kind of profession of faith. The Text of the Shema begins as thus: “Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength…” (Deuteronomy 6:4) There was next a congregational prayer spoken by one of the members of the group appointed by the leader of the synagogue.    Passages from Holy Writ were then sung. There were two readings. The first was from the Law (Torah- the first Five books of the Bible) which was read according to a prescribed cycle of three years. Each days readings were thus prescribed much as they are today in our Lectionary. Thus, in a three-year period the whole of the Torah was read. The Second reading was from the Prophets (Nebiim). This reading was selected at will. At least by New Testament times, there seems to have been a homily also included after the readings. This is indicated in scripture (See Luke 4:16-20; Acts 12:15ff). The whole assembly concluded with the blessing of a priest (Levite) if one was present otherwise with a prayer.

The very early Christians continued to attend the Saturday Synagogue service. They celebrated the Eucharist elsewhere, usually in a home or “house-church” on Sundays. Rather quickly however, there was a falling out with the Jews who came to regard the “Nazarenes” as divisive and hence sought to expel them. Upon “leaving” Judaism, the Christians took the Synagogue service with them and combined it with the celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, we have the beginnings of the form of the mass we recognize today.

The Scripture readings in general. In the readings the treasures of the Bible are opened to the people; this is the table of God’s word. Reading the scriptures is traditionally considered a ministerial, not a presidential function. It is desirable that the gospel be read by a deacon or, in his absence, by a priest other than the one presiding; the other readings are proclaimed by a reader from among the laity. In the absence of a deacon or another priest, the celebrant reads the gospel.  The reading of the gospel is done with great reverence; it is distinguished from the other readings by special marks of honor. A special minister is appointed to proclaim it, preparing himself by a blessing or prayer. By standing to hear the reading and by their acclamations the people recognize and acknowledge that Christ is present and speaking to them. Marks of reverence are also given to the book of gospels itself. Among these are the kissing of the book, the signing of the page with the sign of the cross, and the use of incense. Likewise,  there may also be a special procession to the “Place of the Gospel” as well as the use of torch bearers to stand near the book during its proclamation. Not to be overlooked is the possibility of singing the Gospel where the skill of the priest or deacon permits it.

History of the cycle of readings. In the choice and number of readings in the liturgy a great variety has prevailed and still prevails. The different rites of the Church still have in use different cycles or readings. This is true as well with the revived Traditional Latin Mass which follows its own schedule of readings distinct from the new Lectionary. It is interesting to note however, that many protestant churches have been impressed with the new lectionary of the Catholic Church and make use of its schedule in their own services. One general rule seems to have always been that there be at least two readings one of which would always be from the Gospels. Likewise, the readings were always biblical. The arrangement of the synagogue service, as has been noted was taken into the Christian Church. It was adapted however. Now a Gospel reading was gradually paired with an Old Testament passage. However, at more festive times of the year such as Eastertide there seems to have been an increasing inclination to replace the Old Testament reading with one from the New Testament  other than the Gospel. This began to affect masses at other times of the year as well. However, at first there seems to have been merely the addition of a third reading resulting in a schema similar to the one we have today. However, for some reason this number dropped to two leaving the general schema as a reading from a New Testament Epistle and a Gospel reading. This remained the case until the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council which restored the three-reading schema. According to the testimony of the Fathers of the Church, the service of readings stressed reading the books of Holy Scripture straight through in the form of a “Lectio continua.”(That is to say, the passage this week picks up right where we left off last week.) However, strict adherence to this setup was not exacting. Just as is the case today, this system was often broken into by feast days whose occasion demanded a special and appropriate passage. These feast days tended to multiply and thus break up the continuous reading. Likewise, liturgical seasons played a role in shaping the lectio continua. Thus, through the centuries this strict lectio continua was eroded and became less recognizable although it still existed to some extent. Today, it has been restored to some extent. This is particularly true with regard to the Gospels. However, the first reading is chosen to back the theme of the Gospel and hence its selection is “arbitrary.” The epistles  have returned to a rather strict lectio continua both on Sundays and weekdays.

Today, the lectionary today provides for a three year cycle for the Sunday readings and a two year cycle for weekdays. The first reading comes from the Old Testament and is chosen to parallel the Gospel passage. The second reading is taken from the epistles of the New Testament and  sometimes from the book of Revelation. The Third reading of course is
taken from the Gospels. Each cycle relies especially on one of the Gospels. Cycle A relies on Matthew. Cycle B on Mark. Cycle C on Luke. All three of the cycles also draw on St. John’s Gospel. The weekdays draw from all the Gospels and Books of the Bible giving special emphasis to passages not covered on Sundays. The lectionary presents a broad sweep of the Scriptures. The Sundays readings alone present to the Catholic over 7000 verses of scripture over three years. Nearly the whole of the New Testament is covered in the Lectionary as well as the most significant portions of the Old Testament.

In the next post. We’ll talk a little more about the repsonsorial psalm.

This video depicts the Gospel being Chanted. It is rare today in most parishes to hear this but on Solemn Feasts it is appropriate if the Deacon is able to chant well.