Something beautiful is supposed to happen on Pentecost, though you might miss it.
The culmination of the Easter season offers us a gem of sacred art: Veni Sancte Spiritus, the Pentecost sequence, which has long been regarded as one of the most magnificent works of literature in the Church’s treasury. When set to appropriate music, it occasions enthusiastic yet sober-minded agreement among liturgists, choristers, and historians alike—as few things can.
While many may be familiar with three or four other sequences—those of Corpus Christi, Easter, Our Lady of Sorrows, and the Mass of the Dead—there were a multitude of them in the Middle Ages. Even so, writes medievalist Robert J. Glendinning in his 2015 book Early Christianity in its Song and Verse, the Veni Sancte Spiritus was “one of the most prized sequences of the Middle Ages,” so moving that it “came to be known widely as the ‘Golden Sequence.’” Though some historians debate its proper attribution, Glendinning states that “eminent authorities … consider Stephen Langton by far the most likely author.” Langton was Archbishop of Canterbury in the early thirteenth century, remembered primarily for uncannily precipitating Magna Carta, and later becoming its staunchest advocate.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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How apropos in our current cultural milieu that one of history’s greatest champions of religious freedom penned one of the church’s most efficacious hymns of deliverance.
Especially notable historically is that many sequences, including the Pentecost one, survived among some Protestants. Joseph Herl, professor of music and a longtime church musician, wrote in his 2004 Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism that late sixteenth-century Lutherans sang the Latin Veni Sancte Spiritus “in alternation with German paraphrases.” This practice, which brings out the call-and-response structure of the hymn, was common among Lutherans for the three major sequences: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. With the responses in the vernacular, “the entire congregation was expected to sing along.” More recently, the 2006 study document published by the Catholic/Pentecostal International Dialogue cited the Pentecost sequence as one of the two preeminent prayers among Catholics to “renew faith in the Holy Spirit” (§236).
Indeed, the sequence’s place in Catholic teaching and Tradition is well attested. In his 1979 apostolic journey to Poland, St. John Paul II ended one of his addresses on art, culture, and the Christian roots of Poland by leading the gathered youth in praying the Pentecost sequence. The Catechism he would later approve cites the sequence as an example of how “every liturgical tradition has developed … the simplest and most direct prayer” to the Holy Spirit “in antiphons and hymns” (§2671). This section of the Catechism, “Christian Prayer,” was principally authored by Fr. Jean Corbon, who in his influential book on the liturgy The Wellspring of Worship makes this crucial distinction:
The Church is not simply a vital locus for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit… The Church is the manifestation of the Spirit of Christ in a new community of men and women who have entered into life because the Spirit has brought them into communion with the living body of the Son of God.
The Pentecost sequence draws us deeper into the knowledge and understanding of who this personal Spirit is that makes the one Church alive in the Resurrection of Christ.
With that kind of provenance, it’s not surprising that there are clear directives on the Pentecost sequence. The USCCB’s 2003 Introduction to the Order of Mass affirmed that the Easter and Pentecost sequences were obligatory—they may not be omitted nor replaced by another hymn—and that they were to follow the Alleluia (§90). The 2010 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) concurs in the obligation but directs sequences to be “sung before the Alleluia” (§64).
Why the discrepancy? Jeff Ostrowski explains over at Corpus Christi Watershed that the sequence comes after the “ancient Gregorian Alleluia.” If the Gospel Acclamation replaces the Gregorian Alleluia, however, the sequence comes before that Gospel Acclamation. In other words, “they’re both right.”
So why is the Pentecost sequence so august? In what does its literary merit consist? I’ll highlight three aspects here.
First, economy—or, to put it another way, compression, a standard for poetry that avoids both prolixity and curtailment. The poem is only 95 words in Latin, yet a typical English translation that does it justice is twice that length. To paraphrase Whitman, every Latin line contains multitudes; each succinct image is worthy of profound contemplation.
Line three of stanza nine, for instance, is two words: sacrum septenarium. A straightforward translation would be John Austin’s: “the sevenfold gifts of grace.” Yet the Latin sacrum evokes the sacred vessel itself: the Holy Spirit in whom these gifts are full. Singing the English, we might be misled into asking for gifts in the imperfect sense of what many Saints have called “mercenary love”: gifts as payments for services rendered. The Latin allows no such misconstrual. To ask for the sacrum septenarium is to ask for the Spirit himself, the giver of all good gifts; it is to beg for participation to the fullest in God’s very own divine life through seven particular channels of grace.
Second, the skillful use of repetition. Throughout the poem key phrases repeat in order to highlight the words that don’t—the classic use of contrasts. The second and third lines of stanza six, for instance, both begin with “nihil est”—there is nothing, utterly nothing, without the Spirit; nothing in humanity, nothing safe. Stanza seven shows an even more masterful use of this technique. The middle two words of each line, “quod est,” “all that which is,” are bookended by words that delineate the infinite distance between God and man. Dear Holy Spirit, we sing, bathe quod est wretched; refresh quod est arid. The lines marry form and content in emphasizing both the infinite distance between God and man, and the Spirit’s ineffable gift of transcending that vast firmament.
Third, the poem’s profound enumeration of the many titles of the Holy Spirit: Father of the Poor, Most Blessed Light, Sweetest Consoler, Giver of Gifts, the Soul’s Sweet Guest. Each of these names provides for rich meditation—specifically, knowing and understanding better who the Spirit is. One liturgy director writes that “the multitude of images suggests the free play of the Holy Spirit, never static, never to be contained.” In fact, we might be reminded of Romano Guardini’s great chapter, “The Playfulness of the Liturgy,” in which he speaks of “the delight” of God in the Mass:
The liturgy has laid down the serious rules of the sacred game which the soul plays before God. And, if we are desirous of touching bottom in this mystery, it is the Spirit of fire and of holy discipline “Who has knowledge of the world”—the Holy Ghost—Who has ordained the game which the Eternal Wisdom plays before the Heavenly Father in the Church, Its kingdom on earth.
Just as we learn better who the Spirit is, we move towards participating more fully in his life. As one Benedictine liturgical sourcebook puts it, “If these activities are attributed to the Spirit, then because of the gift of the Spirit’s indwelling we, too, are to live in this way.”
Could the Pentecost sequence be used in other contexts appropriately, in order to spread its aesthetic and spiritual beauty? One popular and ecclesiastically approved liturgical sourcebook suggests singing it during the Easter season. After all, the Holy Spirit comes to convict the world (John 16:8), and the Pentecost sequence depicts the Spirit’s ensuing balm of mercy: “Heal our wounds, our strength renew / On our dryness pour thy dew / Wash the stains of guilt away.” One hesitates to say in today’s liturgical environment that something goes without saying, so we will risk reiterating the obvious: the Pentecost sequence ought to have pride of place as a hymn during confirmations, as it once did.
Which version to prepare? You can’t go wrong with the mode I chant, which in my 1997 reprint of the 1953 Liber Usualis is on pages 880–81.
William Byrd’s Veni Sancte Spiritus may not be in vogue at the moment, but it seems ripe for a revival. In her 2008 book Liturgy and Contemplation in Byrd’s Gradualia, musicology professor Kerry McCarthy judges Byrd’s Pentecost sequence “a first-rate piece of sustained and intense polyphony … the singer or hearer is left with the impression that hardly a note is wasted.”
A highly lauded modern composition for choir and orchestra, Morten Lauridsen’s Veni Sancte Spiritus, movement four of Lux Aeterna, gives the Pentecost sequence a sweeping scope with moments of intense elevation and quiet reverence. Those swift, mystifying chord modulations peculiar to Lauridsen work especially well in portraying the Holy Spirit’s utterly free movement, how he goes wherever he wills (John 3:8).
While sacred music doesn’t get much more epic than Mozart’s full choir and orchestra Veni Sancte Spiritus, KV 47, the Don Giovanni composer used the significantly shorter and vastly different antiphonal text, not the sequence poem, for his work. The chant of this antiphon, “Invocation to the Holy Ghost,” can be found in the Liber on pp. 1837–38.
Be careful also not to confuse the Pentecost sequence with the popular Holy Spirit hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus. Anyone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours will recognize it; as Glendinning notes, the “Come, Creator Spirit” hymn was for many centuries “sung at Terce in monasteries and larger churches as part of the Divine Office” during the week before Pentecost. Do, however, encourage someone to sing the Veni Creator Spiritus publicly with you in the church: a plenary indulgence may be gained, under the usual conditions, for doing so on Pentecost (and, looking way forward, on New Year’s Day).
Though the Veni Sancte Spiritus sequence may be quickly experienced, its rich aesthetic and spiritual depth can be lastingly savored. Here’s hoping your church provides that liturgical opportunity this Pentecost.