A Sequence of Thoughts on Liturgical Sequences: Part II

Fr. Michael Wurtz, CSC

Doctoral Candidate

Pontifical Athenaeum Sant’ Anselmo


In the first part of this essay, I concluded with a series of questions.

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?

One answer might be that by reversing the order the Alleluia and Gospel are placed in closer proximity, emphasizing the Alleluia’s identity as a Gospel Acclamation.  The Introduction to the Lectionary (1981) states, “The Alleluia or, as the liturgical season requires, the verse before the Gospel is also a “rite or act standing by itself.” (41) [NB: This phrase is present in paragraph 62 of the GIRM2003]. It serves as the greeting of welcome of the assembled faithful to the Lord who is about to speak to them and as an expression of their faith through song” (#23).

That the Alleluia relates directly to the Gospel is firmly established and accepted.  But the value inherent in having the Alleluia in close proximity to the Gospel is a value seemingly threatened by the twice-annually mandated insertion of a Sequence.  And it would seem that the nature of this threat has not been articulated with much ink, perhaps precisely because it is not a viable threat in the first place.

If, in fact, the Sequence is seen to disrupt the proper relationship between the Gospel Acclamation Alleluia and the Gospel proclamation, what precisely are we to do with the much broader history where the Sequence’s purpose was to elongate the Alleluia and heighten, not obfuscate, the Gospel?

My research has yet to discover any official rationale as to why the “Alleluia then the Sequence” ordering was changed.  But I do propose two possible reasons and the first rests on the word “ultimum”.

In the Rubricae Generalis Missalis Romani in the Missale Romanum of 1962 and consequently also in the Roman Missal of 1964 we read, “Sequentia dicitur ante ultimum Alleluia vel post tractum” (#470).  The Sequence is to be said before the last Alleluia or after the Tract.  The format for the Great Alleluia would have been:





Verse or Sequence


The Sequence would replace the second verse, that is, right before the last Alleluia. (See The Celebration of Mass by J.B. O’Connell, pages 115-116.)

Interestingly, if we take out the word “ultimum” and just read “ante Alleluia”, then we have a perfectly rational and literal reason as to why the Sequence is now sung before the Alleluia.  We would, in fact, also have the IGMR 2002 that states, “cantatur ante Alleluia” (#64).  Was the reversal of order from “Alleluia then Sequence” to “Sequence then Alleluia” merely based on the ejection of the word “ultimum”?  It is doubtful, but possible.

The second reason (which is more likely) is that the post-conciliar reformers gave renewed emphasis to the relationship between the Gospel Acclamation and the Gospel proclamation.


But such a view presupposes that the insertion of a lengthy Alleluia verse (the Sequence) detrimentally disrupts the momentum the Alleluia gives to the Gospel.  On the contrary, the very purpose of the Sequence was to add to, not take from, the momentum building toward the Gospel.  This is firmly established by those commenting on the Sequence prior to 1969.

There are at least three consequences for this reversal of the “Alleluia then Sequence” ordering.

First, the natural unity and cohesion between the Alleluia and the Sequence is divided.  One element was born from the other.   This was evidenced not just historically and textually but also musically in the treasures composed by the likes of Byrd, de Victoria, and Busnois.  A fault line now exists between the liturgical heritage of the Sequence and its post-1969 treatment.


Second, the new ordering strips the Sequence of its processional nature and consequently diminishes a healthy appropriation of processions in the liturgy.  A common observation today is that the Sequence is a musical or spoken interlude – a sort of add-on to the Epistle.  There is nothing here that is negative or foreign to the liturgy.  However, an opportunity to place emphasis on processions is missed.  Granted, Westminster Cathedral is of such size that walking from the archbishop’s cathedra to the ambo requires much time.  Most churches do not enjoy such architectural immensity.  St. Peter’s outdoor Easter Sunday Mass certainly does.

And there the Sequence was sung followed by the Alleluia as described in the current IGMR.  The lengthy procession had to be filled with “cover music” of organ and brass.  Had an “Alleluia then Sequence” order been observed such “cover music” would more likely not have been necessary.  (See http://all.gloria.tv/?media=149703 starting at the 29:30 mark.)

Third, familiar with ritual patterns, worshippers readily stand-up when hearing any musical note post-epistle.  Only two times is a sequence required: Easter Day and Pentecost (GIRM #64).  And how often have we seen a segment of the assembly stand-up only to find out that indeed the Sequence has begun, not the Alleluia?   The current GIRM ordering is the primary contributor to this confusion.

The Sequence as an individual part of the liturgy does not receive much mention in official documentation nor among liturgists.  Music in Catholic Worship, Liturgical Music Today, and Paschale solemnitatis never mention the Sequence.  Sing to the Lord of 2007 does, but its paragraphs 165 and 166 mostly repeat the GIRM.

From 9th century origins to 14th century flourishing, to severe curtailing under St. Pius V and restructuring in 1969, the Sequence has certainly taken on new forms with varying emphases.  It’s character and shape as an elongation of the last neumes of the Great Alleluia, into a poetic expression of the day’s motif, and now as a post-epistle interlude makes for a curious history and an even more curious theological question.  Was the Sequence a liturgical aberration to begin with?  Was its nature unruly, taking focus away from the Gospel Acclamation and Gospel proclamation?  The liturgical reforms of St. Pius V limited the frequency of sequences but they did not strip them of their original nature.  Sequences retained their character as elongations of the Alleluia thus assisting in the growing momentum toward the Gospel proclamation.

With the 1969 Lectionary, the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is left with sequences that hardly resemble their original intent and form.  Limited in frequency and displaced from the Alleluia, they puzzle the Sunday worshipper as anomalies.  Perhaps the above will shed light upon, and help us understand better, the nature and state of the liturgical Sequence today and how it could look tomorrow.





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