Why is the psalm important?

The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.

This week’s reading may be either from the readings of the Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B or Year A readings which are used when a parish has catechumens or candidates for the Easter Vigil. So what your parish uses for readings this weekend may not be what a neighboring parish uses.

After one Mass, my husband asked why the cantor/choir didn’t sing the psalm as printed in the missal between these readings. I have been a cantor for most of my parish career. I have observed that, in some parishes, the participation in the psalm response is full and active. In others, participation is sparse. Obviously, the best participation is when the assembly is familiar with the music.

The questions then come to mind: Why is the psalm important and why is it sung in the first place? Can’t we just recite it, like the other readings from Scripture?

The singing of psalms has been part of our worship tradition since before the Jewish times of Jesus and continues with our Christian worship today. The placement of the psalm is after the first reading which traditionally has been regarded as a kind of response to that reading, hence the term “responsorial psalm.” The word “psalm” is Greek in origin, psalmoi meaning “songs sung to a stringed instrument.” From there we get the word “psalmody,” the style for the liturgical singing of the psalms.

If you look into your Sunday missal, there are specific responsorial psalms selected for each Mass that reflect the Lectionary (the book of readings). The Lectionary has psalms pre-selected for every Mass, Sundays and weekdays. What comes into play is the musical arrangement for those psalms. Every missal or hymnal is a product of one of many church music publishing companies. Thus, the musical arrangement will vary dependent upon the composers who write for that particular publishing company. You only have to look at the music missal in your parish to browse the various selections both within the Scripture readings and in the section of missal labeled “Psalms.” Now you can see why the chosen musical style for any given weekend can vary considerably.

The best answer I can offer to my husband’s question is that each parish gauges its psalmody. Active participation can vary from boisterous singing to silent reflection as the psalm is prayerfully sung. So, do your best, calm your frustrations and know that, however you participate, the Lord hears and is pleased.

Wettstein is a volunteer choir director and former director of music and liturgy at Good Shepherd Parish, Chilton.