The psalms are used throughout the Mass and historically function as the song of choice in the liturgy. The responsorial today is an extension of the previous short Gradual and to some degree is a rediscovery or new imposition of what we used in the foundational beginnings of the Mass. The psalms have always had a preeminent place in the Church’s worship as they constitute the basic prayer book for Jews, albeit often memorized over being written. Psalms play a part in the Seder of Christ and in the procession to the Garden of Gethsemane. At Mass, the psalms function as a response to the Word of God, often bridging the Old and New Testament readings or the Old Testament with the Gospel. Indeed, there are often thematic connections. The psalms help to maintain a prayerful backdrop to our corporate oration.
Along with the general expansion of the Mass readings, the reforms after the Vatican II Council give greater prominence to the psalms in the liturgy. While it is normative to render the psalm with intermittent responses, it is my understanding that it can also be done as in the Liturgy of the Hours or breviary, with the response or antiphon at the beginning and end of the psalm. Psalms can be recited but there is a preference, when possible, that they be sung or chanted.
Tradition tells us that King David composed many of the 150 psalms. Given the difficult content in some of the psalms, a few of them are clipped or missing in the Liturgy of the Hours in respect to the sensibilities of believers. There is a debate, mostly among liturgists as to whether they should be restored and/or whether there are some psalms unrecoverable for worshippers today. This discussion has spilled over in regard to their use in the post-Vatican II Mass. The times may change but human nature does not. The psalms reflect the human condition with all its emotions and needs, even those that are negative and destructive. A case in point is Psalm 137:8-9: “Desolate Daughter Babylon, you shall be destroyed, blessed the one who pays you back what you have done us! Blessed the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock.” The Church would discern in this that God desires justice; however, the Hebrews received the revelation with hearts bent on revenge. The problem with such psalms is that lines like this might hijack the liturgy and compel the homilist to spend what little time he has in trying to reconcile the notion of a vengeful God with Jesus as the Divine Mercy. Again, this particular line speaks more about the human condition and our feelings than about the divine nature and the truth. While not denying the value of even the difficult passages of Scripture as divinely inspired, the Church prefers to emphasize psalms that focus on the themes of longing, mercy, healing, restoration, respect for persons and honoring the Almighty. It should be said that there is frequently a prophetic element to the psalms, about the history of God’s people and/or about the coming of a Messiah.
Catholicism heavily employs the psalms in the Mass and in her printed prayer book. They lend a meditative element to the liturgical movement. Often they echo the readings. The most important of the psalms may be those that point to the Messiah. Psalm 2 seems to intimate a unique relationship of the Messiah to us as God’s Son.
Psalm 2:1-6 – Why do the nations protest and the peoples conspire in vain? Kings on earth rise up and princes plot together against the LORD and against his anointed one: “Let us break their shackles and cast off their chains from us!” The one enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord derides them, Then he speaks to them in his anger, in his wrath he terrifies them: “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
Psalm 110:4 – You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.
Psalm 22:2; 16-20 – My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? . . . As dry as a potsherd is my throat; my tongue cleaves to my palate; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me; a pack of evildoers closes in on me. They have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. They stare at me and gloat; they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots. But you, LORD, do not stay far off; my strength, come quickly to help me.
The psalms reveal how we are naturally wired for God and for the meaning that he alone can give to human existence. As his creatures, we are utterly dependent upon the Creator. He is all good and we cry out for his forgiveness and protection.
Example of the Responsorial: (Psalm 23:1-3, 4, 5, 6)
R/. Though I walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil, for you are with me.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
in verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me in right paths
for his name sake. R/.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage. R/.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows. R/.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for years to come. R/.
Alleluia / Gospel Verse
After the Responsorial Psalm or Second Reading, the people in the pews stand for the recitation of the Alleluia or another chant (as in Lent) prior to the proclamation of the Gospel. While readers frequently speak it normally, there is a preference that it be chanted or sung— or else omitted entirely. As a priest I prefer to chant it. It sounds odd when offered in a monotone voice. Indeed, even a dispassionate countenance seems to betray the joy that should be present. (I am reminded of the silly children’s song, “If you’re happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it.” It is hard to lead a congregation with a joyous “Alleluia” when all the faces you see look as if someone just ran over the family dog.) By comparison, would we sing the HAPPY BIRTHDAY song as a dirge? No, I think not. The Liturgy of the Word finds its roots in the ancient synagogue service where the Jews would have chanted the Hebrew word Alleluia, calling upon the divine name, “God be praised!”
This small rite within the larger order of the Mass is a ritual verbalization of the focus upon almighty God in the first commandments of the Decalogue. We give praise to God. It is no accident that the Alleluia and verse come right before the proclamation of the Gospel. The natural faith and covenant of the Jews will be consummated by the supernatural faith and new covenant of Christians. The incarnation of Christ will make possible the full revelation of God as Trinity. Even though he looks upon us with a visible human countenance, Jesus is the one who shows us the face of the invisible God. He and the Father are one. The Gospel informs us that the most genuine posture of God is one of compassion and mercy, not vindictiveness and vengeance. It is through the Alleluia and verse that we celebrate or greet the Gospel.
Example of the Alleluia & Verse: (John 3:16)
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia
God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son,
So that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia
The establishment of the Alleluia chant as a rite in the Mass goes back to the seventh century. Traditionally it accompanies the short procession of the deacon or priest with the Book of the Gospels. As soon as it ends, the minister greets the people and announces the reading.