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The Sequence for Pentecost: An Ancient Hymn to the Holy Spirit

Normand GouinNormand Gouin, Pastoral Minister of Liturgy and Music
May 17, 2024

Throughout the Church year, our great liturgical feasts are filled with a rich treasury of music. We all know and cherish the many beloved Christmas carols.  What is Easter without the majesty of the great songs proclaiming the resurrection and the joyful strains of our alleluias?  In fact, if we were to close our eyes and simply hear the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel or Ubi Caritas or the rousing acclamation You have put on Christ, we would no doubt be instantly transported to a specific liturgical season, a specfic day, and even a specific ritual action within the liturgical year. Music wedded to biblical and inspired poetic text has and will always have the power to draw us ever deeper into the mystery of God.

The great solemnity of Pentecost, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and other disciples following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2), and signifies the beginning of the Christian church’s mission to the world, is also marked by its own music. This weekend we will sing a setting of the ancient sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit) immediately before the gospel.  This chant is typically sung at solemn liturgical and sacramental moments in the life of the Church. We hear it at ordinations, at the celebration of the sacrament of Confirmation, at the election of a pope, at the Easter Vigil, and of course on Pentecost.

The sequence is generally thought to have begun as a genre of poetry around the ninth century when Gregorian Chant was flourishing and spreading throughout Europe. A signature element of chant of that era was a flowery, artistic expression on the last syllable of the Alleluia, which extended over several moving notes — a technique known as a melisma or jubilus. Because these jubili were often difficult to learn, poets and musicians started to use prose texts to help a singer memorize the long and complex melodies. Therefore, many of the earliest sequences of this time ended each line with the letter “A” in order to drive home its connection with the Alleluia.

Because chant of this era was originally used as a meditation on Scripture, the purpose of the Sequence developed from a teaching tool for the singer into a musical reflection on the Alleluia verse. The Sequence for Pentecost develops the verse for the Alleluia, which is, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.” The Pentecost Sequence picks up this verse and develops it into one of the most beautiful poetic masterpieces of our time. Literary scholars, musicians and liturgists have sometimes referred to the Pentecost Sequence as the “Golden Sequence.”1

As we sing these words this weekend, may we pay attention to the implications of this plea to the Holy Spirit. May we experience and know the enormous and unfathomable power of this force of Love that overshadowed the apostles – that opened their eyes and hearts to recognize that the Advocate, which Jesus had promised, has truly come to unite and not divide, to heal and to restore, to disturb the status quo and free us from our complacency, to dispel all fear and wipe out all despair. Come, Holy Spirit!

Come, Holy Spirit, come.
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine.

Come, Refuge of the poor.
Come, source of all our store.
Come, within our bosoms shine.

You, of comforters the best;
You, the soul’s most welcome guest;
Sweet refreshment here below;

In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
Solace in the midst of woe.

O most blessed Light divine,
Shine within these hearts of yours,
And our inmost being fill.

Where you are not, we have naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought,
Nothing free from taint of ill.

Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:

Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.

On the faithful, who adore
And confess you, evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend;

Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end.

Amen. Alleluia.

Contemporary Setting in English
Link to Come, Holy Spirit – Collegeville, MN

Traditional Setting sung in Latin
Link to Veni Sancte, Spiritus – Gregorian Chant