Thursday, May 05, 2022

What Really Happened to the Sequences?

Since today is the feast of Pope St Pius V, who promulgated the so-called Tridentine editions of the Roman Missal and Breviary, it seems like a good day to address a persistent misunderstanding about his liturgical reform, one which I have seen repeated in many different places. The idea that St Pius V abolished the majority of sequences from the Mass is incorrect. His reform of the Missal changed nothing about the sequences per se.
The Easter sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes, one of the oldest and most widely used in the genre.
The Missal of St Pius V is a very conservative adaptation of a very conservative tradition, which was known in the Middle Ages as the Missal according to the custom (or “Use”) of the Roman Curia. This tradition had always been very slow to adopt anything new, and its Missal had very few sequences to begin with. In its pre-Tridentine editions, there are the same four found in the Missal of St Pius V, on Easter, Pentecost, and Corpus Christi, and at the Requiem Mass. (The Stabat Mater came in later when the feast of the Seven Sorrows was added to the general calendar.)
As the wise Fr Hunwicke has pointed out many times, it was never St Pius’ intention to abolish non-Roman Uses of the Roman Rite tout court. He did give permission for individual ecclesiastical institutions to take on the Roman version of the liturgical books, while at the same time giving veto power over such a change to every member of every chapter. It is also true that as generally happens, this led to some unintended consequences, and one might legitimately question whether such consequences were all for the best. Nevertheless, what really happened to the sequences specifically is that as see after see and order after order passed over to the use of the Roman books, they also thereby passed over to a Missal which only had four sequences, derived from a tradition that had never had any more than four. Exceptions were permitted, but they were rare, and many of those who kept their proper medieval Uses (e.g. the Premonstratensians) Romanized them, and in many cases dropped the sequences as part of that process.
A page of a Premonstratensian Missal printed in 1578, with a sequence for the feast of the Epiphany; in the next edition, this sequence is missing.
While it is true, therefore, that the sequences largely disappeared as an unintended result of St Pius V’s reform, he did not abolish any sequences at all. He promulgated a Missal that had very few of them, and as this Missal was adopted by others, they thereby adopted a tradition that had very few of them.
There are a few other points that bear remembering in this regard.
1. The Missal of the Roman Curia and that of St Pius V are by no means unusual in having such a limited repertoire of sequences, and we must not imagine that by dint of this reform, a glorious and universally beloved tradition was casually abolished as a thing of no value for no reason.
If one compares medieval Missals, one immediately finds a remarkable degree of uniformity in the older features of the Mass; the Introit of the First Sunday of Advent is always Ad te levavi, on the Second Sunday Populus Sion etc. There are far more variants of the order in which texts appear than in the texts themselves.
On the other hand, the corpus of sequences, which emerged rather later, varied enormously in text, length and especially in quality. To the mind of the Tridentine period, which is very much the mind of the Italian Renaissance, this argued that they were not as important a feature of the tradition as the other parts which the Church had so carefully preserved. (Of course, it can hardly be denied, and I have no concern to deny, that many people will not pass up a chance to shorten the liturgy by cutting what they deem to be “inessential.”)
But even in the period when they were most widely used, there were still plenty of churches that had very few of them, or none at all. As a feature of the Roman Mass, they were almost completely absent from the Use of the Mass followed by the Pope himself, and consequently by the Franciscans, who followed that Use. The Cistercians and Carthusians, with their characteristic austerity, never had them at all, not even for Easter.
The Mass of Easter Sunday in a Cistercian Missal printed in 1486, without the Victimae Paschali
2. Given the rapid success of the Reformation at the beginning, Catholics of the 16th century were genuinely running scared; regardless of whether we think they over-reacted or not (there is a case to be made either way), there really was a pervasive sense that the best way to strengthen the Church was to rally around the Papacy as the bedrock of the Faith. To many people, that meant doing the liturgy as it was done by the Papacy; in a way, the adoption of the Roman liturgical books is a tribute to the persistence of the belief in the principle of “Lex orandi, lex credendi.”
3. There is a very important difference between the reforms of St Pius V and those that came in the 20th century, which we really ought not to lose sight of. Because they did not damage the structure of the liturgy, and they did not make the liturgy the personal plaything of the celebrant and his chosen collaborators, the former were in theory not difficult to reverse. Let us suppose that at some point, a general clamor were to emerge to revive sequences. All one would have to do is publish a book with a collection of them, and declare their use restored ad libitum. I have actually perused a book published by a German musicologist ca. 1965, that weirdly optimistic period when people still thought that the upcoming liturgical reform was going to lead to a revival of all the good things in the Catholic liturgical tradition that had been, so to speak, asleep. It provides a generous selection of sequences for a good number of the major feasts: a perfectly doable reform. The reforms of the 20th century, on the other hand, impinged on the actual structure of the liturgy in a way that is much harder to undo.
The tomb and monument of Pope St Pius V in the basilica of St Mary Major in Rome. 

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