About this blogger:
Richard J. Clark has served since 1989 as Music Director and Organist at Saint Cecilia Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He is also Chapel Organist (Saint Mary’s Chapel) at Boston College. For the Archdiocese of Boston, he directed the Office of Divine Worship Saint Cecilia Schola. His compositions have been performed on four continents.
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“The plea that the laity as a body do not want liturgical change, whether in rite or in language, is, I submit, quite beside the point. … (it is) not a question of what people want; it is a question of what is good for them.”
— Dom Gregory A. Murray (14 March 1964)

Liturgy of the Word and Paraphrasing the Responsorial Psalm
published 30 January 2015 by Richard J. Clark

N THE EARLY 1990s I had a conversation with an employee from one of the mainstream Roman Catholic music publishers. (I do not recall which.) It was pointed out to me that it is advantageous to paraphrase the texts of a Responsorial Psalm so that the composer would retain the copyright of the text (as would the publisher). I imagined it was a practical matter in two respects: a) Paraphrases are necessary to accommodate fixed metrical verses. b) Complex accounting is made much easier by not having to pay out additional royalties.

However, for some years now, mainstream publishers have ceased this practice. While they still print old psalm paraphrased psalm settings, they no longer accept submissions of paraphrased Responsorial Psalm settings. They require the texts to be from the Lectionary or from the 2010 Grail translation. (E.g., Marty Haugen’s new publication, “The Lyric Psalter” by its own description does not paraphrase anything: “All the psalms use the exact text” of the 2010 Grail translation.)

So, I was relieved to see this abandonment of paraphrased psalms, since all too often, paraphrases gloss over the rich detail of the psalms just to fit them inside a fixed number of measures. Sometimes, the meaning of the scripture is unintentionally, but carelessly altered altogether. (Rev. Michael Joncas, S.J., has always avoided these problems as far back as the 1970s by setting each verse of a psalm independently.) Compare the psalm of the day to a paraphrased psalm. How well does it stack up? What descriptive details are missing? What has been outright changed? This is an interesting exercise I sometimes do with my choir so that they appreciate the richness of the Book of Psalms.

UT TO UNDERSTAND THE PLACE of the Responsorial Psalm in the Ordinary Form, one must understand the Liturgy of the Word. It bears reminding that the Homily, Creed, and Universal Prayer are part of the Liturgy of the Word. As the GIRM clarifies:

55. The main part of the Liturgy of the Word is made up of the readings from Sacred Scripture together with the chants occurring between them. As for the Homily, the Profession of Faith, and the Universal Prayer, they develop and conclude it.

It continues:

For in the readings, as explained by the Homily, God speaks to his people, opening up to them the mystery of redemption and salvation, and offering spiritual nourishment; and Christ himself is present through his word in the midst of the faithful. By silence and by singing, the people make this divine word their own, and affirm their adherence to it by means of the Profession of Faith; finally, having been nourished by the divine word, the people pour out their petitions by means of the Universal Prayer for the needs of the whole Church and for the salvation of the whole world.

T IS CLEAR THE LITURGY OF THE WORD REGARDS MEDITATION (and silence) with the highest of importance. Each reading of scripture is connected, as are the chants in between the readings. The Responsorial Psalm proper to the day is often so clearly connected to the first reading (hence a “response”). As such, it must foster meditation not only upon itself but upon the first reading. The verse to the Gospel Acclamation foreshadows the Gospel and in doing so, prepares us to receive it.

Again, the GIRM is direct:

56. The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to favor meditation, and so any kind of haste such as hinders recollection is clearly to be avoided.

So what does all of this say about the actual text of the Responsorial Psalm? We can take a look at the language in various documents:

The Lectionary for Mass (LFM) states:

89. Among the chants between the readings, the psalm which follows the first reading is of great importance. As a rule the psalm to be used is the one assigned to the reading.

The language from the GIRM is a bit interesting. It begins with a touch less clarity:

61. The Responsorial Psalm should correspond to each reading and should usually be taken from the Lectionary.”

But the GIRM later clarifies its use of the word “usually” by giving other options. This is where it gets interesting:

In the Dioceses of the United States of America, instead of the Psalm assigned in the Lectionary, there may be sung either the Responsorial Gradual from the Graduale Romanum, or the Responsorial Psalm or the Alleluia Psalm from the Graduale Simplex, as described in these books, or an antiphon and Psalm from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, including Psalms arranged in metrical form, providing that they have been approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. (§ 61 GIRM)

Interestingly, § 61 of the GIRM concludes: “Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the Responsorial Psalm.” I suspect that this is where the publication of paraphrased psalmody ended. Furthermore, if the final version of a psalm text were left up to individual composers, (as was he practice for decades) publishers would have to obtain approval from the bishops of these arbitrary changes for each and every psalm setting written. Clearly, this is no longer an acceptable direction for the Liturgy of the Word.

HERE ARE ALLOWABLE OPTIONS for the psalm chosen, whether according to the feast day or season. However, the option of changing the actual text—which is scripture—is a different matter altogether. Strangely, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (SttL) cites the GIRM, but misquotes it: “159. Songs or hymns that do not at least paraphrase a psalm may never be used in place of the Responsorial Psalm.” The GIRM says nothing of paraphrases: “61. Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the Responsorial Psalm.”

However, I do very much appreciate this language from Sing to the Lord:

155. Because (the Responsorial Psalm) is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word, and is in effect a reading from Scripture, it has great liturgical and pastoral significance.

This is what needs reminding the most. The Responsorial is a reading from scripture. We meditate solely upon scripture in the Liturgy of the Word. We are not meditating upon a feeling or a vibe or our personal sentiments, but upon the Word of God. Would a lector paraphrase a reading from Isaiah or Paul? Would a deacon or priest go up to the ambo and change the words while proclaiming the Gospel of St. Luke? It’s unthinkable. Then why would a composer change the word of The Psalmist, David? It is a composer’s job to make the text work beautifully and universally so that it is prayerful and singable.

As such, the mainstream publishers, for whatever their reasons were, got this right several years ago when they stopped accepting submissions of paraphrased Responsorial Psalms. Composers have a strong calling to be faithful to the scriptures. Many composers love a challenge. Make it work!

Finally, here are the Chabanel Psalms. There are several settings by various composers for each Sunday of the Three Year Cycle as well as Feast Days. Download them for free.