“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.)