Friday, March 01, 2024

The Kyrie Eleison

Lost in Translation #93

In the 1997 crime drama Donnie Brasco, an FBI technician (Paul Giamatti) asks an undercover agent (Johnny Depp) about the meaning of “fuhgettaboutit” in the Italian-American community. The agent’s explication is memorable. “Fuhgettaboutit,” says he, can mean: agreement, disagreement, wonder and praise, or anger and insult—all depending on a kaleidoscope of intonation and circumstance. “And sometimes,” the agent concludes, as if surprised by his own insight, “it just means, ‘Forget about it.’”

Mi scusi, but I wonder if the Kyrie eleison is the “fuhgettaboutit” of sacred liturgy. In the Byzantine Rite, it is used an astonishing forty times and in strikingly different settings, appearing, among other places, in both the plaintive Great Litany at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy and in the jubilant Litany after the consecration. In the traditional Roman Rite, the Kyrie has one function in litanies and processions, and another in the Mass. And as we will see, within that one function lies a range of emotions and intentions.
Language and Biblical Origins
The prayer, which means “Lord, have mercy” and “Christ, have mercy,” is in Greek rather than Latin. The use of Greek in the traditional Roman Rite is significant for three reasons.
First, along with Latin and Hebrew, Greek is one of the three languages on the placard above the head of our crucified Lord that proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth to be the king of the Jews. Appropriately, all three of these languages are used during the traditional Latin Mass (the Mass includes Hebrew words such as amen, alleluia, and sabaoth).
Second, Greek is a reminder that the Mass in Rome was celebrated in that language for the first three hundred years or so--even though, as we will discuss later, the Kyrie is not a vestige of the Greek liturgy in Rome but something that was introduced to the Roman Rite only after the latter was translated into Latin sometime in the fifth century.
Third, like Latin, Greek is a lingua franca; it has an echo of universality that mirrors the universality of the Catholic Church, and it is even part of the Romanitas of the Church, insofar as Greek was the language of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Fittingly, the Kyrie enjoys a near universal presence in the apostolic liturgies. Besides the Roman Rite and Greek-speaking Byzantines, the Coptic, Ethiopian, and West Syrian Rites use it in its untranslated form. Other Byzantine-Rite churches (such as the Ukrainian) as well as the Armenian and East Syrian Rites use the Kyrie but in their own languages.
The expression itself first appears in the Old Testament [1]. In the Gospels, Jesus Christ is often petitioned with the plea, “Lord, have mercy,” or a similar formula like “Jesus, son of David, have mercy.” [2]
These linguistic and biblical considerations lead Fr. Michael Fiedrowicz to conclude:
The Kyrie impressively places before our eyes the universality of the Church, in that it brings Eastern and Western Christianity together on a synchronous level, allows the prayers of the Old and New Covenant to flow into the liturgical prayer on a diachronic level, leads the ancient desire for a Savior to fulfillment, and finally allows the earthly liturgy to sound together with that of Heaven. [3]
Liturgical Use
The Kyrie was first used liturgically in the city of Rome during processions from one church (the collecta or place of the assembly) to another (the statio, where Mass would be celebrated). As the procession began, the deacon would chant a series of invocations and the people would respond with Kyrie eleison; the procession would then culminate with praying the Collect. When the processions were discontinued, the invocations were dropped and the Kyrie became a formal part of the Mass. An association with invocations lingered, however, in the form of tropes, lines added to the Kyrie (which now consisted of three Kyries, three Christes, and three Kyries) to suit the occasion. Tropes were a common feature of medieval Western liturgy, especially in the Sarum Rite.
Outside the Mass, the Kyrie eleison continues to be used verbatim in Catholic litanies as well as in Latin translation.
The liturgical and devotional conventions that have emerged in the West over the centuries also reveal a curious rule. In our daily, profane lives, we can say “have mercy” to a human being. When Portia asks Shylock to have mercy on Antonio in the Merchant of Venice, she is not being impious or committing a sin. And there is nothing wronging with the age-old custom in central Colombia of addressing someone with sumercé or "your mercy." But in Christian prayer, you can only ask for mercy from God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Trinity. For everyone else, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, you can only ask for prayers. In the litanies, invocations to God are followed by “Miserere nobis – Have mercy on us”, but invocations to the Mother of God and the Saints are met with “Ora pro nobis – Pray for us”. It is an interesting way of underlining the difference between latria (true worship, which can only be given to God) and dulia, which is the veneration of God’s friends.
The Kyrie in the Traditional Latin Mass
After the priest recites the Introit, he and the server/congregation pray:
P. Kýrie, eléison.
℟. Kýrie, eléison.
P. K ýrie, eléison.

℟. Christe, eléison.
P. Christe, eléison.
℟. Christe, eléison

P. Kýrie, eléison.
℟. Kýrie, eléison.
P. Kýrie, eléison.
In the traditional Roman Rite, the Kyrie is plaintive but not part of the plaintive Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and thus not part of the penitential/absolution rite. The distinction is emphasized through action. After the priest finishes the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, he ascends the altar while praying, kisses it, goes to the Epistle corner, makes the sign of the cross, reads the Introit, and then recites the Kyrie. That sign of the cross and the recitation of the Introit mark the more ancient beginning of the Mass: they are the front door, whereas the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar are the front porch built at a later date. While the Confiteor, etc. take place on the front porch, the Kyrie takes place in the living room.
Nor is reciting the Kyrie after the Confiteor redundant. In his commentary on the Mass, Fr. Pius Parsch identifies four aspects of prayer: contrition, desire, praise, and petition. These four aspects, he contends, are present in the initial prayers of the Mass and in the same order: The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar express contrition, the Kyrie desire, the Gloria praise, and the Collect petition. [4] To say “Lord, have mercy” can be a way of asking for forgiveness of one’s sins, as does the publican in the parable when he is standing in the back of the Temple with downcast eyes. (see Luke 18, 9-14)
But in the Gospels, all other uses of the phrase Kyrie eleison or similar formulae are for other miserable conditions such as blindness, demonic possession, and leprosy, with blindness being the most common. Indeed, one can seek divine mercy as a protection from any present or future danger or malady. St. Thomas Aquinas sees the Kyrie as a reference to our present “misery” on earth as we groan in exile on an uncertain pilgrimage that afflicts us all, saint and sinner alike. [5] To put it somewhat glibly, if the Blessed Virgin Mary were to attend a Tridentine Mass during her lifetime, she would not need to recite the Confiteor, but she would still want to say the Kyrie, as I am sure she did in her own way during the flight to Egypt, while her Son was lost in the Temple, or as He hung on the Cross.
Who Is Invoked?
As far as we can tell, all nine invocations of the Kyrie litany were originally addressed to Jesus Christ. The Apostles and others addressed Jesus as Lord, and the early Church did as well, even though the Romans saw the title as politically subversive. One of the earliest hymns proclaims that Jesus Christ “is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2, 11)
The use of three threes and the placement of Christe, eleison in the middle, however, created an almost irresistible temptation to interpret the litany in light of the Holy Trinity, where the first three Kyries are to God the Father, the three Christes are to God the Son, and the last three Kyries are to God the Holy Spirit. Hence, in the days when tropes were still used, the Father and the Holy Spirit were invoked as well as the Son. Seen through this lens, the Kyrie can be read as a Trinitaria crie de coeur while the Gloria, which is structured sequentially according to the Three Divine Persons and in general immediately follows the Kyrie, can be read as a Trinitarian hymn of praise.
According to one liturgical perspective, any move away from the Christocentric origin of the litany is not an organic development but a mistake that should not be repeated. The sample tropes in the new Missal, for example, are all addressed to the Son of God. Noting this usage, Fr. Dennis Smolarski advises celebrants of the Novus Ordo that “when using the third form of the act of penitence, do not speak to the Father, the Spirit, or anyone other than Christ.” [6]
But purely within the lexical context of the Mass, either interpretation is valid. The Christological reading obviously works. Jesus Christ is indeed the Lord, and in the Gloria we go so far as to say that He is the only Lord (tu solus Dominus). On the other hand, the Trinitarian reading works as well: the same Gloria that proclaims Christ alone to be Lord refers earlier to His Father as “Lord God, Heavenly King, God the Father Almighty” (we will explain this oddity in a later essay). And the Holy Spirit is also Lord: in the Credo, we praise Him as the life-giving Lord (Dominus vivificans). Finally, the triple-three sequence acts an invitation for us to ponder the great mystery of circumincession or perichoresis, the mutual immanence or interplay of the three distinct persons of the Holy Trinity whereby the Father is entirely in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, the Son is entirely in the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is entirely in the Father and the Son.
Perhaps, then, instead of drawing a line in the sand in the name of historical purism and insisting on only one option, we can allow for a broader interpretation. Abbot Claude Barthe, for example, makes it clear in his commentary on the Mass that the petitions “are addressed principally to Christ the Lord, in all the majesty of His victory over death,” yet in the same breath he admits that “the three invocations certainly make us think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” [7] He also notes that the reduction of the invocation to three threes first occurred in the Frankish kingdom, “where all possible implications of the Trinitarian dogma had always been defended with particular force.” [8]
Liturgical Occasion
I have suggested that like the Italian-American “fuhgetaboutit,” the Kyrie takes on different meanings depending on context and tone--though not to the extent of contradiction. The general intention, of course, is to petition God to alleviate our miserable condition, which is the result of our own sinfulness or of the postlapsarian world in which we live. There is a way in which the Kyrie betokens our pilgrimage status on earth.
But pilgrimages can vary in their degree of woe from ones that are perilous and painful to others that are rather scenic and pleasant. Similarly, the liturgical occasion on which the Kyrie is used can affect the amount of angst or urgency involved. During a Requiem Mass or a Votive Mass in Times of Plague (or War or Persecution), the faithful may be experiencing this valley of tears more acutely than during the Easter Sunday or Pentecost Mass, and thus their cries of “Lord have mercy” may have different connotations.
Musical Settings
Another factor besides context is tone, or in this case, musical setting. The Kyrie is the first part of the Ordinary that is always sung during a High Mass; thus, despite the concessions made for the celebration of a Low Mass, musicality is a part of its liturgical essence. But the musicality varies significantly according to the repertoire of both Gregorian chant and later musical traditions such as polyphonic and orchestral.
Gregorian chant has eight modes, each with its own emotional register. One author characterizes them in the following manner:
  1. gravis (serious)
  2. tristis (sad, mournful)
  3. mysticus (mystical)
  4. harmonicus (harmonic or harmonious)
  5. laetus (happy, joyful)
  6. devotus (devotional or devout)
  7. angelicus (angelic)
  8. perfectus (perfect)[9]
There are settings for the Kyrie in all eight modes, though interestingly, the rarest is the sad mode (number two), which is used only in the ad libitum chant Rector cosmi pie and not in the Requiem Mass for the dead, which uses the devout mode (number six). The mode probably heard the most often is the serious mode (number one) since it is the mode for Feasts of the Blessed Virgin, the Sundays during the Time after Epiphany and the Time after Pentecost, and the Sundays of Advent and Lent. And there is even a Kyrie in the happy mode (number five), the popular Missa de angelis.
As for other forms of sacred music, one hardly knows where to begin except to state the obvious, namely, that the impression that the Kyrie in Palestrina's Missa brevis leaves on the soul is different from that of the Kyrie in Mozart's Requiem.
The Kyrie in the New Mass
With respect to the Kyrie, the 1970 Roman Missal adds ambivalence to polyvalence, for the litany can be used either as a part of the penitential rite or not. The rubrics allow the celebrant or liturgical planning committee to substitute the Kyrie for the Confiteor and to combine it with tropes such as “You were sent to heal the contrite: Lord, have mercy.” When it is used in this manner, the absolution “May almighty God have mercy on us” follows it. But when the Kyrie is not used in the penitential rite, it is said or sung after the absolution in alternative parts by the celebrant, cantor, people, or choir. The latter arrangement retains what became the Roman Rite's traditional architecture as well as Parsch's distinction between contrition and desire; the former, on the other hand, conflates the distinction and moves furniture from the parlor onto the front porch.
Like “fuhgettaboutit,” the old-fashioned Southern exclamation “Lord a'mercy!” communicates any number of emotional reactions including approval, disapproval, pleasant surprise, and exasperation. How fitting, then, that the liturgical use of this petition should share a similar polyvalence. And yet despite its semantic diversity, the Kyrie brings us back to one central truth: that God's chief attribute is His mercy.

[1] See Ps. 40, 11; Ps. 122, 3; Tob. 8, 10.
[2] See Matt. 15, 22; Mt. 17, 14; Mt. 20, 30-31; Mk. 10, 47-48; Luke 17, 12-13.
[3] Michael Fiedrowicz, The Traditional Mass: History, Form, & Theology of the Classical Roman Rite, trans. Rose Pfeifer (Angelico Press, 2020), 85
[4] Pius Parsch, The Liturgy of the Mass, trans. Frederic C. Eckhoff (Herder, 1940), 43.
[5] Summa Theologiae III.83.4.
[6] Dennis Smolarski, SJ, How Not to Say Mass: A Guidebook on Liturgical Principles and the Roman Missal, Revised Edition (Paulist Press, 2003), 53.
[7] Abbot Claude Barthe, Forest of Symbols: The Traditional Mass and Its Meaning, trans. David J. Critchley (Angelico Press, 2023), 48.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Charles Weaver, “Some Thoughts on Gregorian Modal Ethos,” Corpus Christi Watershed, June 29, 2023.

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