A look at the Mass sequences, centering on the Golden Sequence for Pentecost
Truly, we are creatures of habit. Expecting to stand for the Gospel Acclamation’s alleluias immediately following the Epistle, congregations at Mass are usually caught by surprise when the Sequence suddenly appears instead. Often left without instruction by the lector or cantor, worshippers stand, hesitate, then self-consciously resume their seats.
I once gave a talk at my parish concerning the priestly postures and gestures for the congregation during Mass. The following Pentecost, as the Sequence was about to be sung, I had to smile, overhearing a woman sitting in the pew behind me tell her husband, who had stood up and apparently had given her a nudge to join him, “Look, Sean’s still sitting so I will, too.”
For centuries a deacon processed the Book of the Gospels down the center aisle to the ambo where he proclaimed the Word of God at the ambo. Today, the ambo in the sanctuary is often a simple bookstand. In earlier times, the ambo was a grand structure situated on the north wall, in the middle of a church. It was often decorated with bas-reliefs and mosaics, having seven steps on either side. The ambo was set among the people but raised above them so they could more clearly hear the words of the Gospel.
The Sequence began in the ninth century, a chant composed to extend the Alleluia verse, as the Latin name Sequentia (“Continuing”) makes clear. It was to musically accompany what had become a lengthy Gospel procession.
Over time Sequences multiplied. When Pope St. Pius V codified the ancient rites for Mass in 1570, all Sequences were dropped save these four:
- Victimae Paschali Laudes (“Praise the Paschal Victim”), assigned to Easter Sunday. is attributed to the 11th-century Wipo of Burgundy, Notker Balbulus, King Robert II the Pious of France, or Adam of St. Victor;
- Lauda Sion, (“Praise, O Zion”) written by St Thomas Aquinas specifically for Corpus Christi;
- Veni Sancte Spiritus (“Come Holy Spirit”) for Pentecost. More about this in a bit.
- The Sequences of these great feast days were sung or recited each day of their octaves.
- Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), was to be recited or sung on All Souls’ Day and for Requiem Masses immediately following a death. I served so many Requiem Masses I had the melody, if not the Latin, memorized by the age of 10.
Pope Pius VII introduced the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary into the Universal Calendar of the Latin Church in 1814. Stabat Mater (“The Mother Stood”) by Giacopone da Todi became the Sequence for this feast. This chant is still sung between stations during the Way of the Cross devotion on Fridays in Lent.
For well over a millennium, Pentecost, Whitsunday in England, had been an eight day-long festivity, full of tournaments, troubadours, and high visions of the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend. Even the roguish outlaw Robin Hood slipped into Nottingham to attend Mass and receive “the sweet Jesu” in the Most Blessed Sacrament all for the sake of Whitsun reverence.
Further changes ensued. Easter and Corpus Christi still have their Sequences and, although Pentecost, the great day exulting the descent of the Holy Spirit so beloved by the medieval Church, retained its Sequence, in 1970 the solemnity was denuded of its octave so there is no continuing celebration of the event as before. Christmas and Easter alone have octaves now.
Pentecost was gifted with the beautiful Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, a hymn redolent of supernal praise and thanksgiving offered to God the Holy Spirit, the most neglected Person of the Most Blessed Trinity. So highly prized is this hymn it is often called the Golden Sequence.
Some scholars have supposed it might be another composition of King Robert the Pious. Other authorities suggest its composer was Pope Innocent III. It is more likely the work of Cardinal Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, since many of this Sequence’s themes are found within the good cardinal’s sermons and poetry.
For decades the celestial beauty of Veni Sancte Spiritus, sung by choirs and glee clubs to the melody written by Samuel Webbe, was an expected accompaniment to Catholic commencement exercises. Father David Friel, doctor of liturgical theology, authoritatively states:
Veni Sancte Spiritus is a true masterpiece of Latin poetry. In rhyme scheme, it is complex and gorgeous; lines one and 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 and desolation. So much is lost when this sequence is not sung in its original Latin.
I would add that Father Friel’s praise for its Latin does not slight the superlative 174-year-old translation by Father Edward Caswall, a member of St. John Henry Newman’s Oratorians in Birmingham, England.
A quarter century ago I sang my then six-year-old son to sleep with hymns. His favorite was always Veni Samcte Spiritus. DeForeest enjoyed it in Latin and in Caswall’s English translation. One night I mentioned that the Cyber Hymnal (www.hymntime.com) had another translation. DeForeest insisted I sing it. In time we came across other translations and, yep, they all had to fit Webbe’s melody. From this I learned, as most parents have, that little children don’t care for change and are, indeed, firm traditionalists.
Father Caswall’s translation is, by and large, the official version heard at Mass on Pentecost. Not bothering to maintain the perfection of his efforts, however, the Lectionary’s editors eliminated “Thee,” “Thou,” and “Thine” and so disturb the rhyme scheme.
O most blessèd Light divine, / Shine within these hearts of yours.
The Spirit’s possessive pronoun isn’t even capitalized. Ruining a rhyme simply to appear fashionably current is just mechanical pointlessness. As Oscar Wilde so trenchantly put it, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
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This Pentecost you may be blessed to hear Veni Sancte Spiritus in the soothing spirituality of its Gregorian chant form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6hqAfsHURo. Then, again, you may enjoy the vigorously triumphant joy of Samuel Webbe’s anthem form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2_2GqEyVxU. There are other musical versions but, in my estimation, those two are the best.
Below is the Sequence itself, in Latin, with Father Caswall’s original English translation.
Veni, Sancte Spiritus, Come, Thou Holy Spirit, come!
et emitte caelitus From Thy bright celestial home
lucis tuae radium. Shed a ray of light divine!
Veni, pater pauperum, Come, Thou Father of the poor!
veni, dator munerum Come, Thou Source of all our store!
veni, lumen cordium. Come, within our bosoms shine!
Consolator optime, Thou, of comforters the best;
dulcis hospes animae Thou, the soul’s most welcome Guest;
dulce refrigerium. Sweet refreshment here below;
In labore requies, In our labor, rest most sweet;
in aestu temperies Grateful coolness in the heat
in fletu solatium. Solace in the midst of woe.
O lux beatissima, O most blessed Light divine,
reple cordis intima Shine within these hearts of Thine,
tuorum fidelium. And our inmost being fill!
Sine tuo numine, Where Thou art not, man hath naught,
nihil est in homine, Nothing good in deed or thought,
nihil est innoxium. Nothing free from taint of ill.
Lava quod est sordidum, Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
riga quod est aridum, On our dryness pour Thy dew;
sana quod est saucium. Wash the stains of guilt away;
Flecte quod est rigidum, Bend the stubborn heart and will;
fove quod est frigidum, Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
rege quod est devium. Guide the steps that go astray.
Da tuis fidelibus, On the faithful, who adore
in te confidentibus, And confess Thee, evermore
sacrum septenarium. In Thy sev’nfold gift descend;
Da virtutis meritum, Give them virtue’s sure reward
da salutis exitum, Give them Thy salvation, Lord;
da perenne gaudium, Give them joys that never end.
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Sean M. Wright, MA, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at .