HE SEQUENCES are an interesting facet of the liturgy. Their historical origin is difficult to trace, but they are generally thought to be an outgrowth of the melismatic jubili at the end of Gregorian Alleluias. Sequences originally served as an artful accompaniment to the sometimes lengthy Gospel procession.
First appearing in the ninth century, the sequence rose to a level of fair prominence in the medieval period. Their heyday lasted until the liturgical reforms enacted during the Counter-Reformation. At the height of their usage, there were proper sequences for nearly every Sunday and feast day (outside penitential seasons). Their usage varied widely, however, since the sequences were never obligatory.
In 1570, the liturgical use of sequences was restricted to just four of these texts, including: Victimae paschali for the octave of Easter, Veni Sancte Spiritus for the octave of Whitsun (now called Pentecost), Lauda Sion for the octave of Corpus Christi, and Dies irae for All Souls’ Day and Requiem Masses that immediately follow a death. Then, in 1727, the Stabat mater was added for the new feast of the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady. Notably, these were not the only sequences allowed; they were, however, the only sequences prescribed for the liturgy.
The sequence for today’s feast of Pentecost is the Veni Sancte Spiritus, and it was probably retained because of the many customs and traditions associated with the annual feast in medieval times. This text was likely composed by Pope Innocent III at the turn of the thirteenth century, but it may have been the earlier work of King Robert the Pious of France at the turn of the eleventh century. It is sometimes called the “Golden Sequence” because of the esteem it has long enjoyed among the faithful. One should not confuse this composition, though, with the Veni Creator Spiritus, which is another very worthy but separate composition, attributed to Charlemagne.
Veni Sancte Spiritus is a true masterpiece of Latin poetry. In rhyme scheme, it is complex and gorgeous; lines one & two rhyme with each other, and line three always ends in the syllable –ium. In meter, the sequence is a very faithful example of trochaic dimeter. In content, it is a magnificent meditation on the Spirit’s guidance through consolation & desolation. So much is lost when this sequence is not sung in its original Latin.
Even today, in the Extraordinary Form, this sequence is sung daily throughout the octave of Pentecost. This serves as an excellent bridge to the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, and it provides ample time for the faithful to digest the depth of faith contained in the Golden Sequence.
The liturgical reforms of Vatican II further reduced the number of sequences in the missal. Presently, in the Ordinary Form, sequences are only appointed for two feasts (Easter and Pentecost) and recommended for one (Corpus Christi). The Dies irae and Stabat mater, meanwhile, have been relegated to the breviary, where they have become optional hymns for the Office of the Dead and in the days anticipating penitential seasons.
Another change brought on at Vatican II concerns the placement of the sequence. Historically, the sequence had always followed the Alleluia. This is suggested even by the name “sequence,” which derives from the Latin sequere, meaning “to follow.” In this position, the sequence served as a sort of introduction to the Gospel. The present placement, however, is before the Alleluia, rather than after it. This modern rubric seems anomalous, since it separates the sequence from the Alleluia—the very part of Mass from which the sequence first drew its life.
Editor’s Note : Fr. Friel is quite correct in pointing out that Sequences were created to help singers memorize the long jubilus of the Alleluia. Indeed, many of the early Sequences ended each line with the letter “A” to bring this point home. However, not everyone is aware that there was an serious effort made in 2000 to restore the Sequence to its proper place in the Ordinary Form.