THE CANTOR’S ROLE AS THE PSALMST by Dan McMahon, Director of Music
Here at Our Lady of the Wayside and many Catholic communities the cantor is entrusted to be a minister of the Word by leading the assembly in the proclamation of the Responsorial Psalm. The liturgy offers several points at which psalms may be (and traditionally have been) used, such as at the entrance and Communion chants. Catholic worshiping communities today are most aware of the psalms as the text that appears in the liturgy of the Word between the first and second readings. Specifically chosen in the Lectionary to resonate with the first reading and the Gospel texts, these poetic texts lead us to digest the biblical readings of the day more deeply and allow the assembled to actively express ourselves in this biblical language.
From the deepest roots of our communal worship, when the prophet Miriam led the Israelites in sung praise after they had crossed the Red Sea, Scripture has shaped our entire liturgy and forms the basic language of our prayer texts, including the collect and other prayers. As a minister of the Word, the cantor facilitates the dialogue nature of the responsorial psalm with the entire assembly. It is not an isolated musical interlude chosen by the director of music but rather an integral part of the liturgy of the Word whose text is dictated by our Lectionary.
Regular singing of the responsorial psalm by the psalmist and congregation took years to develop after the Vatican II liturgical reforms. New settings of psalms from the Lectionary were composed and published, and musicians needed to learn how to use the new pieces in their parish communities. The Lectionary also provided texts for seasonal psalms, which were very useful for introducing the practice of singing psalms in parishes, since they could be repeated for several weeks. As we grew more comfortable singing the psalms over time more texts were introduced and we have grown into the practice of singing the psalm of the day as prescribed by our lectionary.
Uniformity of liturgical practice is important to maintaining the Church’s common bonds. Catholics can go from parish to parish, region to region, country to country and experience essentially the same liturgies. There are local adaptations, of course, most especially in the selection of music, but the structure of Mass and most of the texts will be the same everywhere. The same is true for what we believe—our orthodoxy. Catholics everywhere should hold the same essential beliefs. Liturgy and liturgical music are among the ways that those beliefs are shared. Over time, faith is formed and grows through continued exposure to Scripture in the readings and homily. This is true as well–and especially–of the Scripture that we sing. How many Catholics catch themselves singing a familiar psalm refrain such as “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” or “The Lord is my light and my salvation”?
Cantors have the privilege of singing words of faith contained in our psalms with the rest of the assembly. These words embrace joy, sadness, hope, love contrition, compassion and wonder. They help communicate the essence of who we are and what we believe. Words do matter, and for that reason pastoral musicians must take great care in the selection of texts that nurture and sustain the faith of individuals, of our parish community and of the greater church. While we are still growing into the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and the new translation of our Mass texts, we will always strive to improve and more effectively bring the Word of God closer to the faithful.