Unnecessary Impoverishments: The Psalter/Part 1

“The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 51)

As I mentioned in my August 30 post on hymns and their texts, one of the great blessings of my life was the five or six years I worked with the scripture/patristics scholar and composer Fr. Lucien Deiss. Since Fr. Deiss had been selected by Pope Paul VI to coordinate the work on the psalter for the post-conciliar Lectionary, I wanted to get his perspective on the use of the proper vs. common responsorial psalm at Sunday Mass. He informed me that the common psalms were really intended for places with widespread illiteracy, or impoverished places without access to printed resources for the Eucharist. He went on to say that it would be an “unnecessary impoverishment” for most places in the U.S. to use the common psalms during the Liturgy of the Word. I asked him if he used the term “impoverishment” because CSL 51 calls upon us to open up the treasures of scripture. He nodded his head and said “precisely” (a favorite term of his), making me feel the same way I did in second grade whenever I’d get a gold star from Sister Vita.

We discussed the topic a bit further. I told him of a viewpoint in the U.S. that the use of the common psalms was preferable, because over the course of time the assembly would get familiar with the refrain, and sing it more securely. Some noted liturgical authors had proposed that an assembly really needed only a dozen or so responsorial psalms in their repertoire. He wondered why we would want to ignore the other 138 psalms, and all the richness and wisdom they contained. I also wondered—and have continued to wonder—the same thing.


I am a bit suspicious that there is a way in which some of those authors didn’t think of the psalm as truly being scripture. Perhaps intellectually or logically they did, but it could have been that, due to its responsorial format or the fact that it was set to music and sung, they viewed it as somehow other than or lesser than “real” scripture. My suspicion, I’ll admit, had been amplified when two music-disliking members of liturgy committees in two different parishes said they’d prefer to have “more scripture” at Mass and get rid of the psalm.

For any number of years now, I’ve thought of the responsorial psalm less and less as a response to the first reading, and more as the second of four proclamations of scripture. Therefore, it seems logical to me that we treat it as we treat the other three proclamations. We wouldn’t read the same prophetic passage for an entire season, or apostolic letter, or gospel pericope, though doing so would certainly place those passages more deeply in the minds and hearts of the faithful.

Of course, it can be argued that the assembly’s familiarity acquired by singing the response to a seasonal psalm week after week is another way to approach CSL’s “opening up” of the scripture—the quality vs. quantity approach. In this regard I do have an appreciation for a third option that the Lectionary provides: to utilize a common refrain but have the proper psalm verses proclaimed. This seems to me to be an approach that could be effective in the aforementioned places where illiteracy and/or poverty are an issue. However, to refer back to my August 30th hymn text post, it is different—physiologically, neurologically, and spiritually—when the assembly actually has the words of the proper refrain on their lips, in their mouths, articulated by their tongues, fueled by their lungs, week by week. In the long run, it also strikes me that “unnecessary impoverishment” can lead to liturgical laziness on the part of the assembly.

Whether or not Fr. Deiss coined the term “unnecessary impoverishment” in our conversation that day, or if he’d used it before, or knew it from another context (though I’ve not encountered it anywhere else) is not known to me. It has been a good guiding principle for me in my life as a liturgical musician (since CSL also refers to sacred music itself as a “treasure”), so I can strive to avoid unnecessary impoverishments, and open up the riches of God’s grace more lavishly for those I serve.

(Unnecessary Impoverishments: The Psalter/Part 2 will look at the psalms in the context of the proper Entrance and Communion antiphons.)

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19 comments

  1. Thank you, Alan! This was a wonderful article and I look forward to the next chapters! I have made the singing of the psalms my priority ever since I began my ministry and I see, with admiration, the length, breadth and depth of their beauty.
    While I agree with you wholeheartedly and implement the appointed psalm of the day each weekend, I do see pastoral value in using a common psalm throughout the seasons of Advent and Lent. In my experience, I have seen the assembly own and really pray a psalm refrain repeated from week to week, especially in the last couple of weeks of use. It also serves ( along with other things) to unify the season.

    1. Linda, I will say that when I did use a seasonal psalm, it was during Advent/Lent, and the common refrain “Taste and See” during the Year B Johannine Bread of Life Sundays.

      For me, over the course of time I came to value the proper psalm even during Advent/Lent. We had common entrance rite music and/or penitential act, and a common (usually more somber) set of Mass parts used to unify the season. Along with the change in environment and color of vesture, it finally seemed to me that if folks weren’t getting a sense of unity through these seasons, a seasonal psalm refrain wasn’t going to do it either!!

      1. In my experience, the common psalm is more about having a backup in the event one lacks a good musical setting of the proper psalm (especially likely when one avoids paraphrases that, while OK for programming at other places in the Mass, are not licit for the RP).

        Also, as a crutch in Christmastide to use All The Yens of The Earth to simplify rehearsals during that short, intense season where musicians are here, there and nowhere. (I would not be unhappy never to encounter that one again. Definite overexposure PTSD….)

      2. In truth, I also see the value of using the proper psalm. This past Advent, for example I did!☺️ But I have also seen pastoral value in the use of a common psalm, especially for an assembly unused to singing the psalm. My assemblies know such a variety of psalms that, in my current parish, I find it easy to implement the psalm of the day.

  2. Alan;

    Great observations. In an absolute sense, there is no such thing as a “responsorial psalm” in scripture. I believe use of the term contributes to the sense that the Psalm in liturgy is something other than sacred scripture. For many years, I have asked fellow music ministers to use the term “Psalm and Response” rather than “responsorial psalm.”Another major contributor to the sense that the Psalm is something other than scripture is proclaiming the Psalm from locations other than the Ambo–which is still quite common in many parishes.

    One solution is to make a clear distinction between the role of Cantor and that of Psalmist; with the Psalmist finding their place with the Lectors rather than exclusively with the musicians.

    1. Great post, and a great comment, too.

      Further to the distinction between cantor and psalmist, with the latter finding her/his place with the readers: as a proclaimer of scripture during Liturgy of the Word, perhaps the psalmist could join the other readers in the entrance procession?

  3. Interviewing Père Deiss in 2003, I was struck by (a) how he was unhappy with the way the Lectionary chopped up the psalms, giving little snippets instead of the integral psalm text. He clearly didn’t think that the Resonsorial Psalm, as promulgated in the Lectionary, did what he and other advisers had intended it to do. (b) The way the Lectionary was put together was ultimately a mystery, whose secrets were known only to Gaston Fontaine, a Canadian Canon Regular of the Immaculate Concepton, who masterminded it. Deis said that he supplied the selection of psalms for each and every day of the Lectionary, but what then happened was outside his control. Fontaine decided everything himself, with no consultation.

    1. Thank you for this information, Paul – when I’d ask Fr. Deiss about things like Christ the King A and 1 Advent B having the same psalm, or that odd chain of Taste and See psalms in the Johannine Bread of Life Year B Sundays, he would mention Fontaine, and his own frustration with some aspects of how the psalter ended up. It was the closest I would ever hear him come to being uncharitable.

      Like many of the immediate post-conciliar folks who worked on the books, he presumed that the first round would be used for about 10 years, and then a revision after that “learning” period would occur.

  4. In England I have never come across the replacement of the ‘responsorial’ psalm in the lectionary with the common psalm. Indeed the idea seems so strange that at first I did not understand that you were not referring here to the processional psalms. On the other other hand I know of very few places these days which sing the responsorial psalm, and those that do use quite simple tunes for the ‘response’. I can remember elaborate confections used in the 70’s, which did not work.
    To my mind there is an unconventional (not, I think, illegal) solution: leave the elaborate ‘response’ to the psalmist and have the congregation sing the psalm verses. You only need a set of eight tunes for the congregation to do that (one for each mode). This of course is only for a literate congregation which can be supplied with the words of the psalm. I have never heard this done, and am in no position to try it out. If I did I would think first of using the four line tunes of Laurence Bevenot OSB, which I know work well at Evening Prayer.

  5. A stable congregation will soon learn the refrains, many of which are repeated more than once in the three year cycle. Certainly this is our experience. It is heartening to hear the people rise to the occasion – each time with more gusto – as the psalms come around.
    We have an interesting situation in our parish where we have a small group of good psalmists who sing from the lectern to a good standard. Too often their excellent proclamation of the Word is book-ended by readers of indifferent skill and often little preparation. Readers workshops are arranged and invitations are issued, but only the proficient attend.

  6. It is not just the assembly’s lives which the common psalms simplify. Using the appointed psalm every Sunday puts a rather significant burden on psalmists to prepare to not only sing but proclaim many different psalm texts and settings. Perhaps that’s yet another compelling reason to have a psalmist at the mass – just one piece to prepare each week, but prepare it thoroughly.

    1. Theodore Marier’s solution was to set the bulk of the psalms/canticles to the nine Roman plainchant tones. He also made use of the permissions in the GIRM (still present in the US adaptations) for sung Responsorial Psalms to use other translations still approved for liturgical use, which expanded options for renderings that would work better with that approach. It was a lovely thing

    2. Or: get more psalmists! I think we have about 4 qualified persons per Mass. Leading 1 psalm per month is hardly a challenge.

      I’m having flashbacks to my very first parish where I was employed, and I realize now we had the entire choir lead the psalm. I forgot how much of burden this was: week after week, every rehearsal, learning a new psalm setting. I now see why the director picked common psalm settings for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.

  7. In 1980 Fr Eugene Walsh ss came out to Australia and conducted workshops in a number of places. Until then a sung responsorial psalm may have occurred in most parishes at the Easter Triduum but not necessarily at other times. He promoted the use of a sung response with recited verses as a means to jump starting the singing of the response and to this end recommended the use of the common psalms. He also recommended the psalm be sung or proclaimed from a place other than the ambo – I think this was done to highlight that the psalm was the congregation’s response to the word proclaimed. Since then, things have moved on, and a sung response and psalm with cantor is now reasonably common as is the return of proclaiming the psalm from the ambo.

  8. I was sheepish to comment for fear of appearing to question a valued colleague, and now I’m delightfully doubting myself by seeing some other comments….but I thought it was pretty much settled that the responsorial psalm is called what it is because of its form: it’s a responsorial style piece of music, and not a response to the first reading. If it serves a function other than being a proclamation of scripture, it’s being a type of bridge between the first reading and the gospel.

    I’d like to hear from Polish speaking readers who can comment on the experience of the Polish Lectionary psalms. I understand all the refrains have 13 (11?) syllables, thereby allowing them to be sung to a small group of interchangeable melodies able to accommodate these texts. Better yet, can someone share a copy of these melodies?

    1. I believe – along with you, Michael – that it’s more broadly understood that the responsorial psalm got its name from its form, and that it doesn’t respond TO the first reading; at most, it may amplify some themes from the 1st reading. But I think that, outside the somewhat rarefied liturgical atmosphere that you, I, and many PTB readers breathe, the former misconception is still around.

      Not that long ago, I was out of state and attending Mass with some of my gene pool, and the cantor got up after the 1st reading and announced “we respond to God’s word by singing…” &c.

      I’m still not 100% certain that, even in places where this may no longer be the practice, the psalm is understood as having the full weight of scripture.

      I heard from Fr. Ruff about the Polish Lectionary psalm refrains and their adaptability to be set to interchangeable tunes. If somebody can expand “Lord, come to my aid” and collapse “Cry out with joy and gladness, for among you is the great and holy one of Israel” into the same number of syllables, I’m all for it!

  9. Some 33 years ago, while all of this, even then, was swirling around in parishes and their liturgy committees, and in order to get the practice of singing the antiphon and reciting the psalm verses stopped, I began using a “seasonal” or “topical” antiphon over a period of weeks, and using the appointed psalm text of the day set to a simple chant line that I would compose to be compatible with the antiphon. In that way, the psalm was sung as it is intended to be, the appointed psalm text for the day was used, the antiphon had a relationship to the psalm text, the season, and also the “first” reading, the cantor learned how to be a psalmist, the assembly could more easily participate through a common antiphon for a period of time, and it was possible to do in parishes with (sometimes severely) limited liturgical music resources from huge mega-parishes to rural parishes with 30 – 50 families. It was never my intent to limit using the sung appointed psalm (and antiphon) for the day, but to get rid of poor practices that had emerged in parishes following the suggestions of well-meaning liturgy lecturers (Eugene Walsh) and (lazy) liturgical musicians. Fortunately, I had enough training from my years at Saint John’s, Collegeville, and the fine liturgical teachers, musicians, and composers of that place, to be able to pull that off, and rather successfully.

  10. The debate over why the Responsorial Psalm is called “responsorial” has been going on for many years. Purists tend to say that it gets its name from the fact that it is in “responsory” form —i.e. it has a response. Pastoral liturgists will say that that it’s called that not only because it has a response but also because it is a response. They point to it responding to the first reading and leading on to the Gospel, in the same way that responsories in the Divine Office respond to the readings that they follow and don’t just exist in isolation.

    GIRM 61 in fact talks about the responsorial psalm being “sung straight through, that is, without a response”. That being the case, it seems clear that the presence of a response is not in itself the essential component which makes the psalm “responsorial”.

    The same paragraph then goes on to treat the “Common Psalms”:

    However, in order that the people may be able to sing the Psalm response more easily, texts of some responses and Psalms have been chosen for the different times of the year or for the different categories of Saints.

    The purpose of the Common Psalms is evidently to accustom “apprentice assemblies” to singing psalms with responses at every Mass. I don’t think looking down on “training wheels” is terribly helpful. It is important, though, to realize that they are only a short-term measure. The extra wheels come off when the congregation is riding comfortably!

  11. Good article and comments. My home parish in the early 70s usually got the “musical” seminarian (the pastor was a vigorous promoter of liturgical music) and our first psalmists were these young guys with great voices. Psalm of the day from WLP/Paluch, I recall. By the early 80s, the Newman Center where I worshipped had begun to add the seasonal psalm to singing the Mass Ordinary. It was a good transition from recitation I suppose. A further transition I employed in the late 80s/early 90s was a seasonal Advent, Lent, or Easter antiphon with verses from the psalm of the day. I observe the Alstott settings of OCP made the transition to psalm of the day quite easy, as the GIA series Psalms For The Church Year first made the common psalms accessible, and other selections came later. Some of these are still well-loved.

    I occasionally return to common psalms for use during the Communion procession. For whatever reason they were chosen, these texts resonate very well and there are usually many composers from which to choose.

    I look forward to the next in the series, as I think one of the biggest failures of the Roman Missal is the tunnel vision on psalm selections for Entrance and Communion and not enough expansiveness to include the more lyrical passages from the prophetic and wisdom traditions of the Old Testament and a lack of variety in the christological texts of the New Testament. Isaiah 43, for example, isn’t one of the most popular texts in contemporary music only because David Haas and a St Louis Jesuit wrote fine settings of it. The text that communicates a message of comfort and accompaniment resonates deeply with people.

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