Singing the Pentecost Sequence

With Pentecost just over five weeks away, liturgy planners and musicians will be choosing and rehearsing music for this important feast.

Pentecost is one of the two times in the year when a Sequence is obligatory, the other being Easter Sunday. Sequences developed out of the practice of the cantor extending the final ‘a’ of the gospel Alleluia on important celebrations.  Gradually, words were added to the melody and by about the year 1000, the texts had been organised into extended rhyming verse.  The words focussed on the particular feast or mystery being celebrated. These poems were always sung as hymns, never recited.

Sequences were once a common feature of the liturgy. By the time of the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, thousands of sequences had been composed, one of the most famous being the Dies Irae (‘Day of Wrath’) of the Requiem Mass. In the reform of the liturgy following Trent, only those for Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi and the Funeral Mass were included in the Roman Missal. A fifth for the Seven Sorrows of Mary was added later.

The Tridentine missal prescribed the sequence to be sung after the Alleluia and the Gospel acclamation verse but before the Alleluia was repeated. In other words, it was an embellishment of the Gospel acclamation. In reality, however, sequences were considered to be meditative hymns to which the assembly listened while seated, rather than as a preparation for the Gospel to be sung by all while standing.

Although the sequence began as an extension of the Alleluia, it is now read or sung after the second reading and before the Gospel acclamation, to some extent thwarting its purpose of highlighting the acclamation and lengthening the Gospel procession.

This change of order occurred because of the way the new lectionary was printed after Vatican II. The sequence text appeared before the Gospel acclamation, so people started to insert it there in the liturgy. There was no guidance given by the 1975 General Instruction of the Roman Missal but the 2000 General Instruction enshrined the reversed order with the sentence: “The Sequence which, except on Easter Sunday and on Pentecost Day, is optional is sung before the Alleluia”.

A sung sequence serves as a processional hymn for an elaborate Gospel procession on two of the most important days of the Church year. It is a challenge to liturgy planners to ensure that the sequence is a joyful expression of the feast in which all can participate. On Pentecost Sunday the whole assembly could be invited to join in one of the many sung settings of Veni, Sancte Spiritus (‘Come, Holy Spirit’) as the Gospel Book is carried through the assembly in solemn fashion accompanied by candles and incense, culminating in the joyful acclamation: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.  Alleluia!”



Elizabeth Harrington