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Singing The Psalms

August 4, AD2017 2 Comments

hymn, church music, chantIt’s been going on two years that I’ve been attempting to lead the responsorial psalm for Sunday Mass here at St. Anne’s.  The individual who used to do it is no longer with us.  No one else has stepped up, so “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”

I guess I could just dismiss it and say, “Fine, then; we’ll just recite the psalm.  No big deal.”  But, I don’t want to do that.  The psalms are so beautiful, especially when set to music.

The Musical Tradition of the Church

The Catechism of The Catholic Church explains that when we sing the psalms, the combination of sacred music and words are not simply a nice touch, singing forms an integral part of the solemn liturgy:

The composition and singing of inspired psalms, often accompanied by musical instruments, were already closely linked to the liturgical celebrations of the Old Covenant. The Church continues and develops this tradition: “Address . . . one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” (Ephesians: 5:19). “He who sings prays twice.” (St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 72)

The harmony of signs (song, music, words, and actions) is all the more expressive and fruitful when expressed in the cultural richness of the People of God who celebrate. Hence “religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services,” in conformity with the Church’s norms, “the voices of the faithful may be heard.” But “the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed they should be drawn chiefly from the Sacred Scripture and from liturgical sources.” CCC 1156,1158

I have no vocal training (save that I gained in a junior high choir), and certainly, don’t claim to be the world’s greatest singer.  Thankfully, there are YouTube videos for the Sunday responsorials that I can listen to repeatedly to get them “into my head.”

The Psalms Were Meant to be Sung

Though I am no biblical expert, my understanding is that, in their original context, psalms were meant to be sung.  The word “psalm,” I was taught, actually referred to the musical instrument used to accompany these texts.  I do not know, for sure, if this applies to all the psalms, but many of the psalms definitely lend themselves well to music.

With English as our national language rather than Hebrew, I am sure we do not grasp the full beauty and richness of the psalms which, in their diversity, include several genres and both individual and communal texts.  There are hymns of praise, prayers of lament, and songs of ascent (prayed as people approached the temple in Jerusalem).  Even in English, they are beautiful, inspired texts.

If you look at contemporary Christian music, you’ll realize that the psalms are still being used today, even outside of liturgical music.  Popular songs from the past couple of decades which have drawn heavily from these inspired passages include: Forever10,000 ReasonsBlessed Be Your Name, and Whom Shall I Fear? Another (though a bit older), which I also like is: Unto the House of the Lord.  This entire song, in fact, is a translation of Psalm 122, which is a song of ascents.  I can picture myself in the crowd of people nearing the temple and just about feel the jubilation!  If only more people today got that excited about going to church!

In our community, we pray the psalms multiple times each day between the Liturgy of the Hours and Mass.  A number of them, I have set to memory through frequent repetition.  (This comes in handy for praying night prayer Thursdays and Sundays when I don’t need to get out my book.)

Some people chant the psalms as they pray their “Office” (Liturgy of the Hours); some always simply recite them.  I find that setting sacred texts to music has special value and beauty.  No wonder the Church encourages the use of music in the liturgy.

CCC 1157 Song and music fulfill their function as signs in a manner all the more significant when they are “more closely connected . . . with the liturgical action,” according to three principal criteria: beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration. In this way they participate in the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful:
How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face – tears that did me good.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Sr. Christina serves at St. Anne's Guest Home, an assisted living-type facility in Grand Forks, North Dakota. There, she helps in a variety of roles, including receptionist, sacristan, activities, and occasional personal care aide. Along with these duties, she also manages the web page for the facility, writes their weekly blog, and edits their resident newsletter. Sr. Christina also authors "Our Franciscan Fiat" , the blog for her religious community of Dillingen Franciscan Sisters in North Dakota. She also finds time for embroidery, baking, biking and liturgical music. Before entering religious life, she received a bachelor of arts in written communication, with some coursework also in graphic arts and theology.

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  • YikesAndAway

    As a staunch non singer, I find that relying too heavily on singing the Mass to be very off putting and marginalizing. Looks like the TLM is calling my name if this persists.

    • PMA

      Then you’ll have to avoid the TLM Missa Cantata or the High Mass where the relevant parts must be sung – no options. And in the Novus Ordo also, singing is not some bizarre personal option, but eh mind of the Church – see the Catechism and the General Instruction on the Roman Missal. The quality, or lack of it, of the music at Novus Ordo Masses is another matter.

      By the way, a friend who is a music teacher quotes research showing that fewer than two per cent of people are really tone deaf. Too many people have simply convinced themselves, or been told wrongly by others, that they can’t sing. Try it if the music is decent (preferably chant) – it won’t kill you!