Psalm Antiphons for the People of God

In the 1970 Apostolic Constitution Laudis canticum, Pope Paul VI wrote at no. 8: “The praying of the psalms . . . must be grasped with new warmth by the people of God. This 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.”

While Paul VI was speaking of the Liturgy of the Hours, his words are no less true of the Mass. The reformed Graduale Romanum of 1974 provides proper antiphons for the entrance, preparation of the offerings, and communion of each Mass. In some cases it was possible to provide antiphons tied to the themes of the post-conciliar three-year lectionary. In many other cases the psalms simply run their own course and speak of our salvation in Christ in a more general but quite profound way.

In Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, the U.S. Catholic bishops say at no. 115 that “the Psalter is the basic songbook of the liturgy.” At 117 they say that “proper antiphons from the liturgical books are to be esteemed and used especially because they are the very voice of God speaking to us in the Scriptures.” They continue that “the Christian faithful are to be led to an ever deeper appreciation of the psalms as the voice of Christ and the voice of his Church at prayer.”

There is no shortage of resources in English for proper Mass antiphons. There is, for example, the Lumen Christi Missal and the Simple English Propers of Adam Bartlett, the Psallite project from Liturgical Press, and the entrance antiphons of Richard Rice. Readers might wish to recommend further resources.

Drawing on John Witvliet’s excellent The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources, which I use in liturgy and liturgical music courses in our grad school, I’ve been thinking about how the proper psalms can be “grasped with new warmth by the people of God” and how “a deeper understanding” of them can be “communicated to all the faithful.”

I wonder: as we sing at the entrance on the First Sunday of Lent “When he calls to me, I will answer” (Ps 91) or on the Second Sunday of Lent, “My heart has prompted me to seek your face, O Lord” (Ps 27), do the faithful readily appropriate these texts in their full Christological meaning? Do they readily interpret these texts in the rich allegorical senses of Patristic exegesis? Do they see in the Psalms the paschal mystery? Do they know that the crucified and risen Lord is singing in them as they’re drawn into Christ’s dying and rising? I wish I could be more optimistic.

At Saint John’s Abbey we sing entrance antiphons at Sunday Mass during important seasons such as Lent. (Love of hymnody is so strong in these parts that we sing opening hymns rather than entrance antiphons throughout Ordinary Time.) We’re singing Richard Rice’s antiphons this year. They are handily in the same mode as the Gregorian introits, so I can have the chant schola sing the Latin introit as a prelude and call to worship, and this leads seamlessly into the congregational antiphon as the processing monks make their long path into the church and the sanctuary.

Channeling Pius Parsch, who never tired of opening up the liturgical mysteries to the faithful, I’ve made a small change in the congregational leaflet this Lent which I think goes some distance toward the stated goals. Instead of simply printing the entrance antiphon, I’ve been adding in brief titles which focus the antiphons Christologically.

Like this. (My added part is in italics.)

It’s good fun devising these titles. It forces me to reflect on why a particular antiphon text ever made its way to this point in the liturgy. It challenges me to be as free and fanciful as the Fathers sometimes were in their Christological reading of the Psalter. “My eyes are ever fixed on the Lord,” we sing this morning on the Third Sunday of Lent. Huh? Whose eyes are fixed, and why? Is it simply that we should always look to the Lord? No, the entrance antiphons of Lent say rather more than this. They sing of the mystery of Christ and the Father, of Christ’s movement toward the Passion and being raised up by the Father. And so my title, “The Son looks to the Father for rescue.”

The revised three-year lectionary for Lent is rich in its themes of baptism and conversion. It is no contradiction of this when the inherited one-year cycle of entrance antiphons sings of the paschal mystery without referring to the lectionary themes. Since the entrance antiphons are there as they are, we might as well make the most of them, and drink deeply from what they have to offer us.

Join in the fun, Pray Tell readers! What titles would you propose for the last two Sundays of Lent? Here are the antiphon texts:

IV. You will find contentment at her consoling breasts. (Isaiah 66, it’s Laetare Sunday.)

V. Give me justice, O God, and defend my cause. (Psalm 43)

I look forward to your creative ideas.





  1. Sunday 4:
    Midway through Lent: be joyful in God’s plenty.
    Sunday 5:
    Jesus cries to his father for protection in his Passion.

  2. I have also compiled a listing of all the proper resources that I’m aware of at my website, to be a help to those directors choosing to not “cheat the people” out of the proper music of the Mass:

    NB: this page only contains English propers. It is assumed that Latin propers can be found in the GR or GS.

    NBII: it doesn’t show up very well on Mobile. I still need to work on updating the CSS on that page.

    Also, your title project is interesting. In my worship aids, I usually only provide a translation (Latin antiphon ) or transcription (English antiphon), or even a scriptural citation if I’m tight on space, but it’s interesting all the same.

  3. Ben Yanke : I have also compiled a listing of all the proper resources that I’m aware of at my website, to be a help to those directors choosing to not “cheat the people” out of the proper music of the Mass: NB: this page only contains English propers. It is assumed that Latin propers can be found in the GR or GS. NBII: it doesn’t show up very well on Mobile. I still need to work on updating the CSS on that page.

  4. The question I would have about this approach, which has merit in bringing out certain Christological dimensions, is this: Does it limit unnecessarily or foreshorten the allusive quality of the texts, which legitimately admit of numerous interpretations.

    For instance, is it not legitimate to take the same text in an altogether different direction if one is celebrating the First Scrutiny? The eyes fixed on the Lord — couldn’t these eyes be those of the elect preparing for baptism? The prayers of the Scrutinies reveal Christ as water, light and life; they uncover and heal what is sinful, weak, and imperfect. How better to undergo the Scrutiny than with “eyes fixed on the Lord”?

    Or, suppose the gospel of the Samaritan woman is the focus of the homily. “He told me everything I ever did” — the pivotal encounter with Jesus opens this woman’s whole life to him and his transforming power. He is her help, and the help of all the townsfolk who go to hear him. Couldn’t this psalm verse capture the focus of those who believe not only because of the woman’s testimony but because they have seen for themselves?

    I realize these suggestions are taking various vantage points and are not exegetical. But Christological readings are typological and not exegetical anyway, so the question is really about whether it’s better to frame the antiphon and possibly narrow it, or leave it open to multiple interpretations and possibly settle for dull incomprehension.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #5:
      Oh Rita, this is an excellent comment! It really shakes up my paradigm and makes me re-think things. (Doggone it, I hate it when that happens! 🙂 )

      I admit to being drawn to the suggestions in the thread of my chant teacher from Austria, Franz Karl Prassl – but then, he taught me an approach to chant which sees these texts in Christological fashion.

      I’m fully sympathetic to the idea that these texts are multivalent and admit of many levels of meaning.

      I suppose the most I could say is that my titles – which run the risk of limiting and constricting – give people at least something to get out of a text which, I remain convinced, would say close to nothing to many of them at face value.


    2. @Rita Ferrone – comment #5:
      I tend to favor a less aggressive insistence on always favoring the Christological interpretation (and translation!) of certain psalms. I believe we need to respect the integrity of the Hebrew scriptures and not always attempt to remake them into Christological or sacramental “foreshadowing” events. For example, I prefer the more (gender inclusive) translations and interpretations of Psalm 1 and Psalm 8 – which can be understood as applying to everyone (and including Jesus the Christ). I’ve read Biblical commentaries that make a big point of insisting on male pronouns in those psalms in order to clearly emphasize the Christological reference (i.e., the male gender of Jesus), etc. I’m not persuaded.

  5. The other perspective on these texts is the meta-liturgical reality of the initiation rites. While I know that “rose” Sunday has legs, a more Christ-centered and wider sacramental approach is to treat Sundays 3, 4, and 5 somewhat similarly, and point to their value in scrutinizing the lives of the elect, and possibly by extension, the lives of the faithful.

    And while I do appreciate the attempt to discern a foreshadowing of the Messiah in the Psalter, another approach might be to employ the more lyrical passages of the New Testament to yoke to the traditional antiphons. For this weekend, these come to mind: John 7:37-38; Rev 7:15-17; 2 Cor 3:16-18; 1 John 4:13-16. I mention these not as replacements for the dismantling of an entire treasury, but to point out that inspired Scripture is quite often more expansive than our imagination.

  6. Laetare (Fourth) Sunday of Lent

    Let us joyfully embrace each other as children of the Light

    Homily Outline:

    Jesus said “I am the Light of the world” (verse before the Gospel) but the Pharisees said Jesus could not have healed blindness since he was a sinner, e.g. he did not keep the Sabbath. They were quick to see darkness and sin in both Jesus and the blind man. But they were blind to the Light of the world.

    Saint Paul in the Epistle reminds us that we were once darkness (sinners) but now we are light, therefore we should live as children of the light and he says that light produces every kind of goodness and justice and truth.

    Our Lenten journey is a journey like that of Jesus to Jerusalem (the introit psalm), the symbol of the peace and unity of the children of light. We have to leave darkness behind. But we also have to joyfully discover and embrace the light, goodness, justice and truth in one another hidden by darkness and sin.

    The Byzantine tradition begins Lent not with ashes but with the ceremony of mutual forgiveness in which each person embraces and forgives each other while the choir sings the Paschal Praises including:

    The day of Resurrection; let us be radiant for the festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, brethren, even to those that hate us, ‘Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection’

    This is the joy of Laetare Sunday and every Lord’s day.

    (The liturgical tradition, as well as the scriptural tradition, is to interpret everything in terms of everything else. That was a little easier when the liturgy and scripture was about the only things available and there was no competition from books, tv, and the internet. Therefore, today, our homilies and education need to make all the connections, present a big picture, even if some of the connections are obvious to us “liturgy geeks”).

  7. @Rita,

    Please cf. the original Italian. The phrase is, in fact, there. The problem stems from an Italian idiomatic phrasing that doesn’t translate word-for-word into English. Spoiler Alert! Google Translate is of no value in this case …

  8. Our pastor has elected to process in without music and to read the antiphon without commentary. Pretty much *anything* that would help the congregation understand what was going on would be most welcome in these parts.

  9. Rita Ferrone : @Ben Yanke – comment #2: “cheat the people” Still quoting that phrase that doesn’t exist in your source, Ben?


    It’s a direct quote from “Documents on the Liturgy,” pg 1299 (ISBN 0814612814), which was translated by ICEL. Please direct all accusations of textual fabrication to:

    International Commission on English in the Liturgy Secretariat
    1100 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 710
    Washington, DC 20036-4101

    Seriously though, can we drop this now? I’ve provided my source more than once. I can even provide you a scan of the page if you insist. You can stop now.

    You’re partially correct that it may not be an exact, literal, word for word translation of the Italian, but that’s the translation ICEL gave us, and in addition, whatever translation you use, the idea is very similar. The core idea that the propers are important to the liturgy is the idea being clearly conveyed. They are not something to be omitted lightly.

  10. OK… back to the topic…

    This is the 16th Sunday of Ordinary time…. the Antiphons my parish will be singing this Sunday are all from Lumen Christi
    The pdf can be found at

    See… I have God for my help. The LORD sustains my soul.

    My title: “My Dad is bigger than your dad”

    (Psalm 54 with its talk of foes being brought to an end.. By Your power defend my cause… )

    The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

    My title: “Free Refills”
    (my cup is overflowing)

    The judgements of the LORD are right; they gladden the heart, and are sweeter than honey and the honeycomb; And so your servant shall keep them.

    My title: “Just keep running”
    (Ps 19, rejoices like a champion to run his course)

    The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.

    My title: “EAT ME!”
    (He gives food to those who fear Him)

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