Liturgy Matters — Musical texts of Mass

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By Dr. Judy Bullock

What are the origins of the musical texts we sing at Mass?

Scripture is the foundation of most of the texts we sing at Mass. The Book of Psalms, in particular, is referred to as the songbook of the liturgy. Many of these poetic texts have the actual name of the melody or tune that was used in Old Testament times listed in the Bible prior to the text. We don’t know how these tunes sounded by their names alone but we do know that the texts were intended to be sung.

Many of the texts that we sing at Mass are the actual parts of the Mass, such as the Glory to God and the Sanctus. Psalms, however, are recommended for a number of locations in the liturgy where the text varies. The most important of these is the responsorial psalm which follows the first reading in the Liturgy of the Word. The entrance, or opening song, the song during the presentation and preparation of gifts and the song during the distribution of Holy Communion are additional locations in the Mass where psalms are recommended.

The psalms are one of the best sources for sung prayer since the full range of human needs and emotions are expressed in them.  They provide the means of expressing joy, trust, hope, thanksgiving, and praise, as well as, sorrow, fear, lament, even anger. Consequently, they are selected to respond to the specific Scripture readings that we hear at Mass.

Another characteristic that makes the psalms particularly appropriate for the liturgy is that they are dialogical: conversations between God and God’s people and between the psalmist and the people. These dialogues provide a perfect vehicle for communication. Although at times the congregation may sing psalms in the form of a hymn or a song, the form most often used in the liturgy is the responsorial form.

What is the role of the cantor in the responsorial psalm? 

The primary role of the cantor is to sing the verses of the responsorial psalm and to engage in this dialogue with the rest of the assembly. The cantor sings the refrain or antiphon, and then the rest of the assembly repeats it. The role of the cantor is to sing the verses. The role of the rest of the assembly is to respond after each verse with the refrain. To qualify as dialogue there is a back and forth exchange. Just as the priest does not say, “The Lord be with you” and then respond himself, “And with your spirit,” the cantor does not sing both parts of the responsorial psalm dialogue.

What may strengthen this dialogue in the Mass?

Faced with a new psalm response each Sunday can make participation more difficult. Rehearsal of the psalm response before Mass can be helpful to clarify the text and get familiar with the melody. The church does offer an alternative solution. In the Lectionary for Mass there is a section of seasonal psalms that may be used. For example, Psalm 51, 91 or 130 may be used for some or all of the Sundays in Lent instead of changing the psalm each Sunday. This repetition better ensures the people’s participation and can provide the opportunity to gradually build repertoire.

In the end we are not only seeking participation in the responsorial psalm at Mass but also to learn these psalms, take them home with us in our hearts and be able to call them up in times of need.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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