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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Kyrie eleison

by Adrian Fortescue
Transcribed by Christine J. Murray

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.

While this article is taken from a volume written well before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it is still relevant from an historical perspective, allowing us to study the history of the Kyrie eleison. The Kyrie litany of the Mass is no longer considered Trinitarian in its focus, but is addressed in particular to Christ, who takes away the sins of the world.

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" (Diatribæ 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; Isaias 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.4-5; cf. Ap. Const. VIII vi 4). That is still its normal use in the Eastern rites. The deacon sings various clauses of a 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 do not mention it. But it occurs often in Saint 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. Heræus, 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 Saint 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 only "Kyrie eleison" and "Christe eleison," that we may dwell longer on these words of prayer. (Ep. ix in PL, 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 (eg. 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 the third 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 such form. 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.

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Part 2: More History

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