What are the origins of the responsorial psalm?


What are the roots of the responsorial psalm in the liturgy? I know that the psalms are used in the divine office and that this was not part of the mass pre-Vatican II. I was wondering if it had historical or ancient roots.


That’s an interesting question you’re asking. I look forward to finding out the answer. And another thing. Is there a website where I can read the full text of the responsorial psalms, from Psalm 1 to 150? I’d like to compare them, one by one, with the Biblical originals.


It’s an ancient part of the Liturgy. The equivalent in the EF is the gradual. The gradual texts are derived from the psalms. Actually this is still an option in the OF.


Here is a portion of an article:

"Now we consider the Responsorial Psalm which has a history of its own.

"In a way, if you were to walk into Mass for the first time you might find the presence of a sung psalm a bit odd. Here we are reading the Word of God and suddenly another song breaks out! What is going on here. Is it another reading, is it a prayer. What is its purpose? Well let us read and see.

"The responsorial psalm or optional “gradual” comes after the first reading. The psalm is an integral part of the liturgy of the word and is ordinarily taken from the lectionary, since these texts are directly related to and depend upon the respective readings. The cantor of the psalm sings the verse at the lectern or other suitable place, while the people remain seated and listen. Ordinarily the congregation takes part by singing the response, unless the psalm is sung straight through without response. If sung, the following texts may be chosen:

"1. the psalm in the lectionary,
"2. The Gradual in the Roman Gradual,
"3. or the Antiphon or the psalm in the Simple Gradual

“History – In the early Church there was a pattern to the psalm response much like our own today. That is to say, there was an antiphon or verse sung by all followed by extended verses of a particular psalm chosen for the day with the antiphon intervening every so often by way of a response. Many of the Fathers of the Church make mention of this format. St. Augustine makes explicit mention of the practice in his sermons; likewise, St. John Chrysostom and St. Leo the Great among others. In the early days, the psalm texts were sung in their entirety. This was true even of the lengthier psalms. (Today, there are usually selected verses of the psalm used. It is rare that a whole psalm be sung unless it be brief in itself). The responsorial psalm was seen as an integral part of the liturgy with its own significance. This is in contrast to some of the other singing we have previously discussed such as the Entrance Antiphon (Introit) which was sung originally to cover a movement or fill a space of time and set a tone. In this way it existed for a purpose beyond itself. Here the chant has an importance in itself and does not exist to cover motion etc. It was seen as a moment of pious meditation, a lyrical rejoicing after the word of God had been received into the heart of the believer. Originally the deacon was the singer of this psalm and versicle. Later the task moved to the subdeacon & later still to the schola Cantorum (Choir).” SOURCE


The Synagogue.


What about the Temple?


That’s partially true. If you look at the Propers in both the EF and the OF, the Introit, the Gradual, the Alleluia, the Offertory and the Communion Antiphon are all either psalm verses, Bible verses from other books of the Bible, or a mix. On some days it is almost all psalms. Next Sunday, 14th of OT, is a case in point. The Introit and Alleluia are verses from Psalm 47; the Gradual is verses from Psalm 70, the Offertory verses from Psalm 17 and the Communion verses from psalm 33 (one of my favourites, “Gustate et videte…”)

What the responsorial psalm does is take the place of the Gradual in the liturgy; the Gradual though, even in the OF, is a licit choice instead of the responsorial psalm. The abbey where I go to Mass always sings the Gradual instead of the responsorial psalm.

The Responsorial psalm gives a bit more context in that a larger part of the psalm is used, in stead of just a couple of verses.

There are a few exceptions where the Propers are not from scripture, but they are comparatively rare. You can blow away Protestants by showing them how much scripture is in the Mass especially if the Propers are used!

(all numbering above according to the Vulgate).


That was my thought. The Lord and the Apostles sang a hymn at that first mass in the upper room.

Then, as we do today, they departed the upper room on a mission.


In Sunday services in the Church of England, I believe, the whole congregation sings a whole psalm every week. I can readily imagine that chopping the psalm down to four or five two-line verses, far from “blowing him away,” would likely strike the Anglican churchgoer as a caricature of true worship.


I was thinking more along the lines of some of my Evangelical acquaintances that say that the Mass is “not scriptural” or that Catholics don’t get much scripture.

Of course while Catholics may only use excerpts of psalms (“chop down”), they do so every day, not once a week! :wink:


Not all Catholics go to Mass every day!


Well, that is not a very convincing argument. How many people either go to Mass every day, or read the Divine Office?

I think that Evangelicals use the Bible in a very different way than RCs. It’s a working sacred text that is studied, prayed with, and woven in and out of people’s lives. That just doesn’t happen in the typical Catholic spiritual life. You may hear the Gospel on Sunday, and recite a few lines from the Psalms, but it is not the same at all.


Not nearly enough but enough to offer it every day. And I do know many folks who, while not able to attend daily Mass, do read the readings from the missal every day.

In any event my comment came from some Evangelicals in my entourage who said that the Mass is “not scriptural” and does not have enough scripture. Which at the time infuriated me especially since one of them was an apostatized Catholic and should have known better.


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