Many books, masters and doctors thesis have been written on the subject of the Responsorial Psalm.
In this blog entry, I will do my best to provide a concise explanation and offer insights for your reflection.
During the Liturgy of the Word, we hear Scriptures from the Old and New Testament, proclaimed by the Readers. We also hear the words of Jesus from the Gospel, proclaimed by the priest. Just after the first reading from the Old Testament, we sing the Responsorial Psalm.
We are led in singing the Responsorial Psalm by a Psalmist (a musician whose role is only to lead the Responsorial Psalm) or a Cantor (a musician who leads the assembly in singing all parts of the Mass). The difference between these two roles is a discussion to be saved for another blog entry.
When the current lectionary was developed, the Psalm for a particular liturgy was chosen as “bridge” between the Old Testament reading and the Gospel. These three readings can be seen as one, completing a theme for our reflection at a particular liturgy. NOTE: The second readings are often taken from the letters of St. Paul and were not chosen to be reflective of these themes, but connections can often be made.
The term “responsorial” can have two meanings:
1. The Psalm can be seen as a response to the first reading. Composer and author Lucien Deiss says this: "The Responsorial Psalm may be considered as the response of the community to the Word that is given to it. The Responsorial Psalm ritualizes this response." The psalms move the assembly beyond merely hearing a text to participating in that text as personal experience. Our response helps us to understand the whole of the Liturgy of the Word and to respond by taking its meaning for our lives.
2. The Psalm can be referred to as a responsorial psalm due to our sung response to the psalmist/cantor singing the psalm refrain – we hear and we respond back with what we have heard.
The psalms are poems expressing the religious experience of the Hebrew community, which are commonly grouped into two broad categories of hymns (praise) and prayers (laments). Psalms of praise express wonder and awe over God's power and presence. Psalms of lament express pain and suffering when God seems distant or absent.
Often the Psalm text will vary, depending on the theme of the 1st Reading and the Gospel. A good example of the Psalm for this coming Sunday, Psalm 145. On several Sundays through the liturgical cycle, we sing the refrain “I Will Praise Your Name My King and My God”. However, this week, the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B), we sing “The Hand of the Lord Feeds Us He Answers All Our Needs”. This follows the reading of the Elisha feeding a crowd with barley loaves and precedes the Gospel accounts of Jesus feeding a crowd with fishes and loaves. The alternate refrain makes a better connection between the two readings rather than the more common response.
Through the singing of the psalm, we can enter more fully into the meaning of the Liturgy of the Word and its implications for their lives.
JaNet Hancock is the Director of Music and Liturgy at St Michael Catholic Church in Livermore, CA