Kyrie Eleison (Greek for
"Lord have mercy"; the Latin transliteration supposes a pronunciation
as in Modern Greek) is a very old, even pre-Christian, expression used
constantly in all Christian liturgies. Arrian quotes it in the second
century: "Invoking God we say Kyrie Eleison" (Diatribę Epicteti, II,
7). A more obvious precedent for Christian use was the occurrence of
the same formula in the Old Testament (Psalm 4:2, 6:3, 9:14, 25:11,
121:3; Isaiah 33:2; Tobit 8:10; etc., in the Septuagint). In these
places it seems already to be a quasi-liturgical exclamation. So also
in the New Testament the form occurs repeatedly (Matthew 9:27, 20:30,
15:22; Mark 10:47; Luke 16:24, 17:13). The only difference is that all
these cases have an accusative after the verb: Kyrie eleison me, or
eleison hemas. The liturgical forumula is shortened from this.
It is not mentioned by the
Apostolic Fathers or the Apologists. The first certain example of its
use in the liturgy is in that of the eighth book of the "Apostolic
Constitutions". Here it is the answer of the people to the various
Synaptai (Litanies) chanted by the deacon (Brightman, "Eastern
Liturgies", pp. 4 and 5; cf. "Ap. Const.", VIII, vi, 4). That is still
its normal use in the Eastern rites. The deacon sings various clauses
ofa litany, to each of which the people answer, Kyrie Eleison. Of the
Greek Fathers of the fourth century, Eusebius, Athanasius, Basil, Cyril
of Jerusalem, and the two Gregories [of Nazianzus and Nyssa] do not
mention it. But it occurs often in St. John Chrysostom. Its
introduction into the Roman Mass has been much discussed. It is certain
that the liturgy at the Rome was at one time said in Greek (to the end
of the second century apparently). It is tempting to look upon our
Kyrie Eleison as a surviving fragment from that time. Such, however,
does not seem to be the case. Rather the form was borrowed from the
East and introduced into the Latin Mass later. The older Latin Fathers,
Tertullian, Cyprian, etc., do not mention it. Etheria (Silvia) heard it
sung at Jerusalem in the fourth century. It is evidently a strange form
to her, and she translates it: "As the deacon says the names of various
people (the Intercession) a number of boys stand and answer always,
Kyrie Eleison, as we should say, Miserere Domine" (ed. Heręus,
Heidelberg,1908, XXIV, 5, p. 29). The first evidence of its use in the
West is in the third canon of the Second Council of Vaison (Vasio in
the province of Arles), in 529. From this canon it appears that the
form was recently introduced at Rome and in Italy (Milan?): "Since both
in the Apostolic See as also in all the provinces of the East and in
Italy a sweet and most pious custom has been introduced that Kyrie
Eleison be said with great insistence and compunction, it seems good to
us too that this holy custom be introduced at Matins and Mass and
Vespers" (cf. Hefele-Leclercq, "Histoires des Conciles", Paris, 1908,
pp. 1113-1114; Duchesne, "Origines", p. 183). The council says nothing
of Africa or Spain, though it mentions Africa in other canons about
liturgical practices (Can. v). It appears to mean that Kyrie Eleison
should be sung by the people cum grandi affectu. E. Bishop (in the
"Downside Review", 1889) notes that this council represents a
Romanizing movement in Gaul.
The next famous witness to
its use in the West is St. Gregory I (590-604). He writes to John of
Syracuse to defend the Roman Church from imitating Constantinople by
the use of this form, and is at pains to point out the difference
between its use at Rome and in the East: "We neither said nor say Kyrie
Eleison as it is said by the Greeks. Among the Greeks all say it
together, with us it is said by the clerks and answered by the people,
and we say Christe Eleison as many times, which is not the case with
the Greeks. Moreover in daily Masses some things usually said are left
out by us; we say on Kyrie Eleison and Christe Eleison, that we may
dwell longer on these words of prayer" (Ep. ix in P.L., LXXVII, 956).
The last words appear to mean that sometimes other prayers are left out
that there may be more time for singing the Kyrie Eleison. We also see
from this passage that in St. Gregory's time the special Roman use of
the alternative form Christe Eleison (unknown in the Gallican and
Eastern rites) existed. It seems inevitable to connect the Kyrie
Eleison in the Roman Mass with an original litany. Its place
corresponds exactly to where it occurs as part of a litany in the
Syrian-Byzantine Liturgy; it is still always sung at the beginning of
litanies in the Roman Rite too, and St. Gregory refers to "some things
usually said" in connection with it. What can these things be but
clauses of a litany, sung, as in the East, by a deacon? Moreover there
are still certain cases in the Roman Rite, obviously of an archaic
nature, where a litany occurs at the place of the Kyrie. Thus the last
clause (Kyrie Eleison, repeated three times; Christe Eleison, repeated
three times; Kyrie Eleison, repeated three times) is sung as the
celebrant says the first prayers of the Mass, and correspond in every
way to our usual Kyrie. So also at ordinations the Litany is sung
towards the beginning of the Mass. In this connection it may be noted
that down to the late Middle Ages the Kyrie of the Mass was left out
when it had just been sung in a Litany before Mass, as on Rogation days
(e.g., Ordo Rom., XI, lxii). We may suppose, then, that at one time the
Roman Mass began (after the Introit) with a litany of general petitions
very much of the nature of thethird part of our Litany of the Saints.
This would correspond exactly to our great Synapte in the Syrian Rite.
Only, from what has been said, we conclude that the answer of the
people was in Latin -- the "Miserere Domine" of Etheria, or "te
rogamus, audi nos", or some suchform. About the fifth century the Greek
Kyrie Eleison was adopted by the West, and at Rome with the alternative
form Christe Eleison. This was then sung, not as in the East only by
the people, but alternately by cantors and people. It displaced the
older Latin exclamations at this place and eventually remained alone as
the only remnant of the old litany.
The first Roman Ordo
(sixth-seventh cent.) describes a not yet fixed number of Kyries sung
at what is still their place in the Mass: "The school [schola, choir]
having finished the Antiphon [the Introit] begins Kyrie Eleison. But
the leader of the school watches the Pontiff that he should give him a
sign if he wants to change the number of the litany" ("Ordo Rom.
primus", ed. Atchley, London, 1905, p. 130). In the "Ordo of Saint
Amand", written in the eighth century and published byDuchesne in his
"Origines du culte" (p. 442), we have already our number of
invocations: "When the school has finished the Antiphon the Pontiff
makes a sign that Kyrie Eleison should be said. And the school says it
[dicit always covers singing in liturgical Latin; cf. the rubrics of
the present Missal: "dicit cantando vel legendo" before the Pater
Noster], and the Regionarii who stand below the ambo repeat it. When
they have repeated it the third time the Pontiff signs again that
Christę [sic] Eleison be said. This having been said the third time he
signs again that Kyrie Eleison be said. And when they have completed it
nine times he signs that they should stop." So we have, at least from
the eighth century, our present practice of singing immediately after
the Introit three times Kyrie Eleison, three times Christe Eleison,
three times Kyrie Eleison, making nine invocations altogether.
Obviously the first group is addressed to God the Father, the second to
God the Son, the third to God the Holy Ghost. The medieval commentators
are fond of connecting the nine-fold invocation with the nine choirs of
angels (Durandus, "Rationale", IV, xii). From a very early time the
solemnity of the Kyrie was marked by a long and ornate chant. In the
Eastern rites, too, it is always sung to long neums. It is still the
most elaborate of all our plainsong melodies. In the Middle Ages the
Kyrie was constantly farced with other words to fill up the long neums.
The names of the various Kyries in the Vatican Gradual (for instance,
Kyrie Cunctipotens genitor Deus of the tenth century, Kyrie magnę Deus
potentię of the thirteenth century, etc.) are still traces of this. As
an example of these innumerable and often very long farcings, this
comparatively short one from the Sarum Missal may serve:
Kyrie, rex genitor ingenite, vera essentia, eleyson.
Kyrie, luminis fons rerumque conditor, eleyson.
Kyrie, qui nos tuę imaginis signasti specie, eleyson.
Christe, Dei forma humana particeps, eleyson.
Christe, lux oriens per quem sunt omnia, eleyson.
Christe, qui perfecta es sapientia, eleyson.
Kyrie, spiritus vivifice, vitę vis, eleyson.
Kyrie, utriqusque vapor in quo cuncta, eleyson.
Kyrie, expurgator scelerum
et largitor gratitę quęsumus propter nostras offensas noli nos
relinquere, O consolator dolentis animę, eleyson (ed. Burntisland,
[Lord, King and Father unbegotten, True Essence of the Godhead, have mercy on us.
Lord, Fount of light and Creator of all things, have mercy on us.
Lord, Thou who hast signed us with the seal of Thine image, have mercy on us.
Christ, True God and True Man, have mercy on us.
Christ, Rising Sun, through whom are all things, have mercy on us.
Christ, Perfection of Wisdom, have mercy on us.
Lord, vivifying Spirit and power of life, have mercy on us.
Lord, Breath of the Father and the Son, in Whom are all things, have mercy on us.
Lord, Purger of sin and Almoner of grace, we beseech Thee abandon us notbecause of our
Sins, O Consoler of the sorrowing soul, have mercy on us.]
Notice the greater length
of the last farcing to fit the neums of the last Kyrie, which are
always longer. Sometimes the essential words are mixed up with the
farcing in a very curious mixture of Latin and Greek: "Conditor Kyrie
onmium ymas creaturarum eleyson" (Ib., 932*). The reformed Missal of
Pius V happily abolished these and all other farcings of the liturgical
IN THE ROMAN RITE
In the Mass, the three
groups of invocations are sung by the choir immediately after the
Introit. They form the beginnings of the choir's part of the Ordinary.
A number of plainsong Masses are provided in the Gradual, each
characterized and named after the Kyrie that begins it. Although each
Mass is appointed for a certain occasion (e.g., forsolemn feasts,
doubles, Masses of the B.V.M., etc.) there is no law against using them
without regard to this arrangement. Moreover, except on ferias, which
keep their very simple chants, the various parts (Kyrie, Gloria, etc.)
of different Masses may be combined (see rubric after the fourth Creed
in the Vatican "Gradual"). The new Vatican edition also provides a
series of other chants, including eleven Kyries, ad libitum. The Kyrie
Eleison (as all the Ordinary and proper of the choir) may also be sung
to figured music that does not offend against the rules of Pius X's
"Motu proprio" on church music (22 Nov., 1903). Meanwhile the
celebrant, having incensed the altar and read the Introit at the
Epistle side, says the Kyrie there with joined hands alternately with
the deacon, sub-deacon, and surrounding servers. At low Mass the
celebrant after the Introit comes to the middle of the altar and there
says the Kyrie alternately with the server ("Ritus celebr." in the
Missal, iv, 2, 7). The Kyrie is said in this way at every Mass with the
exception of Holy Saturday and also of the Mass on Whitsun Eve at which
the prophecies and litany are chanted. On these occasions the cantors
finish the litany by singing the nine invocations of the Kyrie. After
the prayers at the foot of the altar the celebrant goes up, incenses
the altar, and then at once intones the Gloria. But he should say the
Kyrie in a low voice himself first. Besides in the Mass, the Kyrie
occurs repeatedly in other offices of the Roman Rite, always in the
form Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison (each invocation
once only). It begins the preces feriales at Lauds, Terce, Sext, None,
Vespers; it begins the preces at Prime and Compline. It is sung after
the Responsorium at funerals, said at marriages and on many other
occasions for blessings and consecrations. In these cases it generally
precedes the Pater Noster. It also begins and ends the Litany of the
Saints. As an imitation of this, it is always placed at the beginning
of the various other private litanies which are imitations of the
IN OTHER RITES
In the first place, the
invocation Christe Eleison is purely Roman. With one exception,
obviously a Roman interpolation in the Mozarabic Rite, it does not
occur in any other use. Local medieval uses had it, of course; but they
are only slight local modifications of the Roman Rite, not really
different rites at all. In the Gallican Mass, as described by Germanus
of Paris, three boys sing Kyrie Eleison three times after the Trisagion
which follows the Antiphon at the entrance, then follows the
Benedictus. These chants represent the beginning of the Mass (Duchesne,
"Origines du Culte", pp. 182, 183). After the Gospel and Homily comes a
litany sung by the deacon like the Syrian and Byzantine synaptai. The
people answer in Latin: Precamur te Domine, miserere; but at the end
come three Kyrie Eleisons. The Milanese rite shows its Gallican origin
by its use of the Kyrie. Here, too, the form is always Kyrie Eleison
three times (never Christe Eleison). It occurs after the Gloria, which
has replaced the older Trisagion, after the Gospel, where the Gallican
litany was, and after the Post-communion, always said by the celebrant
alone. It also occurs throughout the Milanese offices, more or less as
at Rome, but always in the form of Kyrie Eleison three times. The
Mozarabic Liturgy does not know the form atall, except in one isolated
case. In the Mass for the Dead, after the singing of the chant called
Sacrificium (corresponding to the Roman Offertory) the celebrant says
Kyrie Eleison, and the choir answers Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison
("Missale mixtum" in P.L., LXXXV, 1014, 1018, 1021, 1024, etc. -- the
various Masses for the Dead). This is obviously a Roman interpolation.
All the Eastern rites use
the form Kyrie Eleison constantly. It is the usual answer of the people
of choir to each clause of the various litanies sung by the deacon
throughout the service (varied, however, by paraschou Kyrie and one or
two other similar ejaculations). It also occurs many other times, for
instance in the Antiochene Rite it is sung twelve times, at Alexandria
three times just before Communion. In the Byzantine Rite it comes over
and over again, nearly always in a triple form, among the Troparia and
other prayers said by various people throughout the Office as wellas in
the Liturgy. A conspicuous place in this rite is at the dismissal
(Brightman, 397). In general it may be said to occur most frequently in
the Syrian-Byzantine family of Liturgies. In the Syriac liturgies it is
said in Greek, spelled in Syriac letters Kurillison, so also in the
Coptic liturgies (in Greek letters, of course -- nearly all the Coptic
alphabet is Greek); and in the Abyssinian Rite it is spelled out:
Kiralayeson. The Nestorians translate it in Syriac and the Armenians
into Armenian. All the versions of the Byzantine Rite used by the
various Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches (Old Slavonic, Arabic,
Rumanian, etc.) also translate Kyrie eleison.
Written by Adrian Fortescue. Transcribed by Christine J. Murray.
The Catholic Encyclopedia,
Volume VIII. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil
Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John
Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York