In the fifth part of this series, I would like to expand comments I shared recently at our parish Roman Missal sessions. This is another piece about the particular points of "internal participation" by the Assembly. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
During the Liturgy of the Word, there are two particular places for musical participation by the people. The first of these is the Responsorial Psalm. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says: "After the First Reading follows the Responsorial Psalm, which is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word and which has great liturgical and pastoral importance, since it fosters meditation on the Word of God." (61)
The key word there is "meditation" - which clearly implies an engaged inner engagement with the text during the Psalm. This is not passive listening, or simple enjoyment of a song and joining in a refrain.
The cantor here takes on a specialized role: "It is the psalmist’s place to sing the Psalm or other biblical canticle to be found between the readings. To carry out this function correctly, it is necessary for the psalmist to be accomplished in the art of singing Psalms and have a facility in public speaking and elocution." (G.I.R.M. 102) Notice the role implies the ability to proclaim Scripture well - this goes beyond merely being a good singer, because the Psalm is more than a mere song. Ideally, the cantor will not just sing the Psalm, but pray it as well - sincerely interacting with the text, connecting spiritually to the words and how they have impacted his/her own life in the past, and impact it in the present moment.
As a cantor/psalmist myself for almost 24 years, I have often been encouraged to make the Psalter my prayer book - to have a living relationship to the words I sing and proclaim and to make the Responsorial Psalm a moment of genuine prayer. There is no substitute for that. The authenticity of the cantor's prayer life should be transparent during the Psalm. Therefore, the act of singing is secondary to the expression of the meaning of the text, which should come from the depths of the heart, without being so overly dramatic as to be distracting to the Assembly.
Much of this expression can be accomplished through eye contact with the Assembly, the sincerity of the facial expression and the dynamics (level of loudness/softness) as the Psalm is proclaimed. Ideally, the cantor should sing a joyful psalm of praise with conviction and joy, or a psalm of contrition with a genuine sense of his/her own sinfulness and unworthiness. It does not matter if the musical form is chant or through-composed. The inner engagement of the singer should be transparent. The Psalm is not merely an expressionless chant. It is not merely a pretty song. It is never a performance. Instead, it is a moment when the proclamation of the Scriptural text is incarnated - brought to life through the authenticity of the cantor.
Certainly, it helps if the cantor has the musical ability needed to make the singing of the psalm "beautiful," but knowing the music and being able to sing well is secondary to the ability to proclaim the text. The ability to make the music simply a vehicle for the prayer is what every cantor should strive for in his/her ministry. When this is done well, the Psalm becomes a genuine dialog of prayer between the people and the cantor. During the Responsorial Psalm, the cantor/psalmist is - like the priest in the rest of the Mass - the leader of prayer. While the cantor is the collective voice of the people as individual private human beings, each living their relationship with God along with all the emotions and situations described in the psalms, the priest is in his role leader of the voice of the Mystical Body of Christ, the gathered Assembly, raising the public prayer of the Church to the Father.
What is the role of the people during the Psalm? To listen and actively meditate on the words of the verses and to make both the verses they hear and antiphon they sing their own personal prayer - to "own" the Psalm as the voice of something in their own human experience.
Next: the Gospel Acclamation.