The Art of Celebration XIII: Ministering the Responsorial Psalm

The worthy ministering of the Responsorial Psalm brings a good deal to the experience of the Liturgy of the Word.

  • The fact that the psalm provided is provided as a response to the first reading indicates even in some small way the intended dialogic nature of the Liturgy of the Word. We are not to listen to readings only but to respond to them and so enter into fresh dialogue with the Lord who speaks through them
  • Readings can be sung or chanted, but very rarely are. However the expectation is that the Responsorial psalm will be sung. This brings variety to the Liturgy of the Word.
  • The psalm is expected to be ministered by a psalmist or cantor – seeing a variety of ministers involved in the Liturgy highlights the corporate nature of liturgical celebration.
  • Even if it is not sung the congregation has an active part to play in the proclamation of the psalm – at least by joining in the response provided

The Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass has the following to say.

19. The responsorial psalm, also called the gradual, has great liturgical and pastoral significance because it is ‘an integral part of the liturgy of the word.’ Accordingly, the people must be continually instructed on the way to perceive the word of God speaking in the psalms and to turn these psalms into the prayer of the Church. This, of course, ‘will be achieved more readily if a deeper understanding of the psalms, in the meaning in which they are used in the liturgy, is more diligently promoted among the clergy and communicated to all the faithful by means of appropriate catechesis.’

A brief remark may be helpful about the choice of the psalm and response as well as their correspondence to the readings.

20. As a rule the responsorial psalm should be sung. There are two established ways of singing the psalm after the first reading: responsorially and directly. In responsorial singing, which, as far as possible, is to be given preference, the psalmist or cantor of the psalm sings the psalm verse and the whole congregation joins in by singing the response, In direct singing of the psalm there is no intervening response by the community; either the psalmist or cantor of the psalm sings the psalm alone as the community listens or else all sing it together.

21. The singing of the psalm, or even of the response alone, is a great help toward understanding and meditating on the psalm’s spiritual meaning.

To foster the congregation’s singing, every means available in the various cultures is to be employed. In particular use is to be made of all the relevant options provided in the Order of Readings for Mass regarding responses corresponding to the different liturgical seasons.

22. When not sung, the psalm after the reading is to be recited in a manner conducive to meditation on the word of God.

The responsorial psalm is sung or recited by the psalmist or cantor at the lectern.

General Introduction: Lectionary for Mass

It is worth noting that the Introduction permits an introduction to the psalm – to highlight the relationship between the psalm and the other readings, and something of the nature and subject of the psalm itself. This opportunity might be kept for times when it would be particularly useful – but those times surely do exist.

The Introduction also states that ‘ as a rule’ the psalm is to be sung. It presents options. Drawing on the skills of psalmist or cantor (and other musicians and singers) will mean that a greater variety of settings may be used that better express the psalm text. However the direct singing of the psalm is also accepted when necessary – and the Lectionary not only offers common responses for the Liturgical seasons (see 21 above, and p949 of Volume 1 of the Lectionary for Mass) but also common responsorial psalms for the Church Year (see p950 of Volume 1 of the Lectionary for Mass.)

These common responses and responsorial psalms are particular valuable when there is no Psalmist/Cantor, as is the case in many Sunday Masses and probably at most weekday celebrations of Mass.

Here, by way of example, is what the Lectionary offers as common texts for Advent

There is a single common response: ‘Come and set us free, O Lord.’

And there are two responsoral psalms

I (From Psalm 24)
Response: To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul

Lord, make me know your ways.
Lord, teach me your paths.
Make me walk in your truth, and teach me:
for you are God my saviour.

The Lord is good and upright.
He shows the path to those who stray,
He guides the humble in the right path,
He teaches his way to the poor.

His ways are faithfulness and love
for those who keep his covenant and law.
The Lord’s friendship is for those who revere him;
to them he reveals his covenant.

II (from Psalm 84)
Response: Let us see, O Lord, your mercy

I will hear what the Lord God has to say,
a voice that speaks of peace,
peace for his people and his friends
and those who turn to him in their hearts.
His help is near for those who fear him
and his glory will dwell in our land.

Mercy and faithfulness have met;
justice and peace have embraced.
Faithfulness shall spring from the earth
and justice look down from heaven.

The Lord will make us prosper
and our earth shall yield its fruit.
Justice shall march before him
and peace shall follow his steps.

The use of one or both of these common psalms sung to a simple chant at daily Mass throughout the season of Advent can go a long way in helping to establish the character of the season, and enhance the quality of the Liturgy of the Word.

If all attempts at chanting the psalms fails then having the congregation say the psalm together, at least helps deepen familiarity with the psalm and draws the congregation into playing a different role in the liturgical action – literally speaking their response to the first reading. It is not a difficult thing to produce cards with the psalm of the day or the week or the season for people to use.

Reflection Questions

  • What place does the Book of Psalms have in your devotional life – and that of your community?
  • What ways is the responsorial psalm ministered in your community
  • What resources are made available to help the community sing?
  • What training would help ministers develop skill and confidence in service of the liturgy and your community?

A log with links to previous postings in this series is kept here.


~ Translation of Psalms: From The Psalms: A New Translation © 1963 The Grail (England) published by HarperCollins.
~ Translation of the General Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass (c) 1969, 1981, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. All rights reserved.
Commentary: (c) 2021, Allen Morris
~ Photograph: (c) 2017, Allen Morris. King David and the singing of psalms: Stained glass, Lichfield Cathedral.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Celebration XIII: Ministering the Responsorial Psalm

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