A Sequence of Thoughts on Liturgical Sequences: Part I

Fr. Michael Wurtz, CSC

Doctoral Candidate

Pontifical Athenaeum Sant’ Anselmo


On Easter Sunday morning of this year I observed that the Westminster Cathedral Choir, with the excellence for which they are famous, sang the Alleluia Gospel Acclamation followed by the Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes.  And for the first time I noticed this peculiar ordering, or what I thought was a peculiar ordering, only to discover that indeed the Alleluia followed by the Sequence is in fact the original ordering.

“Sequence” is an English translation of the Latin “sequentia”, or “that which follows”.  Elsewhere in the tradition “sequentia” is used in the sense of “the following”, such as “Sequentia sancti Evangelii secundum Lucam”.  From the 9th century when sequences first began to appear and later in the 12th century when they grew in complexity, hundreds of these hybrid Alleluia verses-hymns were composed and used in the Mass.  (See Margot Fassler’s Gothic Song.)  Through the liturgical reforms of St. Pius V the number of sequences in the Missale Romanum was curtailed to just five – Victimae paschali laudes (Easter), Veni Sancte Spiritus (Whitsunday or Pentecost), Lauda Sion (Corpus Christi), Stabat Mater (Seven Sorrows of Mary), and Dies irae (All Souls and Mass for the Dead).  With the exception of the Dies irae, these remain present in the post-Vatican II Mass though only Victimae paschali laudes and Veni Sancte Spiritus are mandatory.  (See Sing to the Lord, #165 and GIRM # 64)  The modern lectionary is not exhaustive.  The Graduale Romanum of 1974 includes other optional sequences.






The Sequence arose as a prolongation of the last neume or note of the Alleluia.  In The Liturgy of the Mass Pius Parsch wrote, “The Alleluia is our joyous greeting of Christ and the expression of our homage.  It marks a climax in the service of the word of God, and we can well understand the reluctance of the people to end the Alleluia melody, and hence the origin of the Sequence” (Parsch, 154).  It should be noted that the Stabat Mater and the Dies irae are exceptions to this rule.  Rather than extensions of jubilant Alleluias, they are extensions of the sober sentiments of mourning.

Parsch’s claim that the Sequence fulfilled the congregation’s desire for extended expression of the beauty inherent in the Alleluia pairs with the practical role the Sequence served as processional music for the Evangelarium as the deacon processed from the celebrant to the ambo in order to proclaim the Gospel.

To these emotive and practical rationales can be added a third, that of meditative.  Parsch again writes, “The Sequences were designed as a meditation on the preceding Alleluia verse, and this is still the case in two out of the five Sequences that have been retained.  The Easter Sequence is in its first, and oldest, part (before the words: Dic nobis Maria) an amplification of the Alleluia verse: ‘Christ, our Pasch, is sacrificed’” (Parsch, 156).  In the third volume to The Church’s Year of Grace, Parsch again touches upon this meditative purpose of the Sequence when he writes, “Only since the Middle Ages have sequences been added to Mass formularies, and today’s [Easter Sunday] is an excellent example of what a sequence should be,viz., a meditation upon the Alleluia verse” (Parsch, 11).

The Alleluia and its elongated verse that over centuries transformed into the Sequence carry a textual lineage.  The phrase “Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus” is found throughout the Mass for Easter Sunday.  Quoting again from Pius Parsch’s, The Liturgy of the Mass, “Similarly, in the Easter Mass we find a beautiful motif taken this time from the Epistle, and re-echoed in the Alleluia chant and the Communion: ‘Christ, our Pasch, is sacrificed’, and this thought is taken up and elaborated by the Sequence” (155).  This textual lineage is derived from First Corinthians 5:6b-7.  “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough?  Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.”  The 1962 Missale Romanum invokes this passage five times during the Mass for Easter Sunday – The Epistle is itself taken from 1 Cor: 5, 7-8, the Alleluia verse again quotes “Pascha nostrum immolatus” which is alluded to in the Sequence’s opening line.  The phrase is used also in the Praefatio paschalis and finally in the communion antiphon.

The Missale Romanum of 2002 (Third Typical Edition) employs “Pascha nostrum immolatus” in all five of the prefaces for Easter and also in the communion antiphon for Easter Sunday.  The current Lectionary contains this same phrase on Easter Sunday in the alternative Epistle for the day (1 Cor 5:6b-8) and in the Alleluia verse.  And lastly, it is still alluded to in the Sequence Victimae paschali laudes.

And so this textual lineage is present in the Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form liturgical books.  But the original ordering of “Alleluia followed by the Sequence” was changed to “Sequence followed by the Alleluia”.  The difference in placement and ordering persists.

When exactly, and why, was this change first made?

The Missale Romanum of 1962, the Roman Missal of 1964, the praenotanda Ordo Cantus Missae of 1972, the Graduale Romanum of 1974, the Graduale Simplex of 1975, and every Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (IGMR) prior to 2002 all mention (or have listed in their contents) the original and historical ordering of Alleluia followed by the Sequence.  What happened in 2002?

The current IGMR2002/GIRM2003 reads, “Sequentia, quae praeter quam diebus Paschae et Pentecostes, est ad libitum, cantatur ante Alleluia / The Sequence, which is optional except on Easter Sunday and on Pentecost Day, is sung before the Alleluia” (GIRM #64).  In his very helpful book, Let Us Pray: A Guide to the Rubrics of Sunday Mass, Paul Turner writes, “When the revised GIRM was first published in 2000, it said the sequence should be sung after the Alleluia (GIRM 64), in agreement with the Ordo Cantus Missae in the Graduale Romanum (8).  But the 2002 GIRM changed the order to what had already become a more common practice: the sequence is to come before the Alleluia” (Turner, 70).

Interestingly, while the Introduction to the Lectionary (1970 and 1981) makes no explicit mention of the Sequence, the Lectionary itself for the Mass of Easter Day lists the Sequence and then the Alleluia – in that order.  This is true for the Ordo Lectionum Missae, editio typica and the editio typica altera.  Is the 1969 Lectionary the main reason that by 2002 the “more common practice”, as Turner wrote, is to sing the Sequence followed by the Alleluia?

What happened theologically and legislatively between 1969 and 2002 to cause the reversal of ordering?  What prompted such a change in the current IGMR2002 and not in previous editions?  What rationale is given for the re-ordering?  We will consider these questions in a second article, published this Friday.


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