The Rite Note – Observations from the Choir Loft

Feast of Pentecost –

“Sequence”-ially Speaking . . .

One of our Catholic liturgy’s more beautiful and special “ritual notes” is The Sequence. 

Of the 3 greatest FEASTS of the Church, PENTECOST ranks not far behind CHRISTMAS, which, of course, ranks not far behind EASTER – the very reason for being a Christian at all!  Coming 50 days after EASTER, PENTECOST celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the sealing of Christ’s redemptive mission on earth, the completion of the Triune God’s sanctifying intervention in our lives by assuring us of His almighty Presence with us forever as Father, Son AND Holy Spirit!  It is often referred to as “The BIRTHDAY of the CHURCH” because it marked the beginning of the Apostles’ real acting as “Followers of the Way”, the first name for Christians as mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (9:2).Rite Note

And as we have seen with some of the other great feasts of the Church, there is a special ritual characteristic of the liturgical celebration of this feast, and this time it is a poetic chant or hymn, which we call “a Sequence”.  Not that this feature is unique to Pentecost.  In fact, at one time during the Middle Ages, there were dozens of these liturgical classical metres scattered through the Church’s yearly cycle of celebrations.  One source I read during my research said there may have been as many as 16 in use for Easter alone!  But since the papacy of Pius V in 1570, several years after the great Church Council of Trent (much like Vatican Council II in our time), the number of sequences for the entire Roman Rite (or version of the liturgy) was reduced to four.  And I would say that of the 4, the most familiar, and even possibly the most beautiful, is that of PENTECOST.

But before getting to that, what exactly is this Sequence?  Well, as already mentioned, basically it is a chant or hymn written on a sacred subject.  It is meant to expand on and explain the meaning of a sacred celebration.  But it is written in a particular style of Latin language poetry that is called non-classical -meaning it doesn’t have the same number of word syllables in each verse or stanza but rather tries to fit the wording in such a way that it is more easily suitable to musical chanting.  The verses do come in pairs, however, where the rhythm of the 2nd half of a pair follows that of the 1st half.  In that way, it is often sung in a cantor/choir arrangement, where one or a few singers will do the 1st half of a pair of verses and a choir or larger group will sing the 2nd half according to the same melody.  A Sequence IS meant to be sung, but most often these days it is simply reverently read, especially when there is no one in a parish with chanting ability.  Sequentially, from which its name is derived, a Sequence comes after the 1st reading’s Responsorial Psalm, or after the 2nd reading when there is one.  In any case, it comes immediately before the Alleluia and Gospel Acclamation.

Come HOly SpiritThe 4 Sequences still prescribed in the Roman liturgical style of the “western hemisphere” of the Church are those for EASTER (“Christians to the Paschal Victim”), PENTECOST (“Come, Holy Spirit”), CORPUS CHRISTI (“Laud, O Sion, Your Salvation”), and Our Lady of Sorrows (“By the Cross Her Station Keeping”).  And of those, only the first 2 are required to be sung or read at their liturgies.  There are 2 more Sequences still in use:  most notably the “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) sometimes included on the Feast of All Souls and in Masses of the Dead; and one allowed our Dominicans for CHRISTMAS (“Sweeten All Your Song With Gladness”).

Of course, originally written for the Latin language, these beautiful sacred poems sometimes lose something in their modern day translations to the language of a country or locale.  Fortunately, the SEQUENCE for PENTECOST is not one of them.  And of the text of this particular Sequence, many hymns to the Holy Spirit have been and continue to be written in beautiful music – most notably the “Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest” in English and the great “Veni Creator Spiritus” often still sung in Latin at the beginning of many sacred celebrations where the guidance of the Holy Spirit is being invoked.  Look them up on Google sometime when you get a chance if they don’t come to mind and enjoy the beautiful poetry and musical settings.

But for now, I encourage you to focus on this PENTECOST SEQUENCE for the upcoming Sunday feast of June 8th, and enjoy the beauty of this sacred jewel, reflecting/praying on the spiritual reality and sentiments of this great RITE NOTE.  (Here’s just one of many YouTube links if you want to hear it in English  Pentecost Sequence – Come, O holy Spirit, Come – YouTube  or in Latin  Veni Sancte Spiritus (Pentecost, Sequence) – YouTube)

 1.  Come, O Holy Spirit, come!                              2.  Come, O Father of the poor!
      And from your celestial home                                Come, O source of all our store!
      Shed a ray of light divine!                                       Come, within our bosoms shine.
 3. You, of comforters the best;                              4.  In our labor, rest most sweet;
      You, the soul’s most welcome guest;                   Grateful coolness in the heat;
      Sweet refreshment here below;                             Solace in the midst of woe.
5.  O most blessed Light divine,                             6.  Where you are not, we have naught,
      Shine within these hearts of Thine,                        Nothing good in deed or thought,
      And our inmost being fill!                                        Nothing free from taint of ill.
7.  Heal our wounds, our strength renew;               8.  Bend the stubborn heart and will;
      On our dryness pour your dew;                             Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
     Wash the stains of guilt away:                               Guide the steps that go astray.
9.  On the faithful, who adore                                10.  Give them virtue’s sure reward;
      And confess you, evermore                                  Give them your salvation, Lord;
      In your sevenfold gift descend;                             Give them joys that never end.
                                                        Amen.  Alleluia.

 Until next time – stay tuned!

Jim Guinasso, Liturgical Singer

Leave a Reply