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The Puzzling Sequence
In the context of liturgy, the word ‘sequence’ (from the Latin sequor, ‘to follow’) refers to a hymn that follows the gospel acclamation and thus prolongs the gospel procession on important feast days.
It started with 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.
Eventually about 5 000 sequences came to be used in the liturgy. One of the most famous was the Dies Irae (‘Day of Wrath’) of the Requiem Mass.
Sequences now occur rarely in the liturgy. Pentecost Sunday is one of the two celebrations during the year that has an obligatory sequence: Easter is the other. There is an optional sequence for the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Some of the traditional sequences survive as hymn texts, such as Stabat Mater at the Stations of the Cross and the Te Deum Laudeamus (‘Holy God, We Praise Thy Name’) as a hymn of praise on Trinity Sunday.
Although the sequence began as an extension of the Alleluia, it is now often read or sung after the second reading and before the Gospel acclamation, in contradiction of its intent of highlighting the acclamation and lengthening the Gospel procession.
The Tridentine missal prescribed the sequence to be sung after the gradual and the Alleluia and 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.
The change of order after Vatican II occurred because of the way the new lectionary was printed. 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 which simply said: “ Sequences are optional, except on Easter Sunday and Pentecost.” (GIRM 1975 #40)
The 2000 version of this paragraph has been reworded to avoid any ambiguity: “The sequence is sung after the Alleluia. It is optional, except on Easter Sunday and Pentecost.” (GIRM 2000 #64)
When sung after the Alleluia as intended, the 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 festival 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!”