Why is the Kyrie in Greek?
by The Rev. James R. DeViese, Jr, JCL
This article is reprinted from The Lewis County Catholic Times, the weekly bulletin of Saint Patrick Catholic Church in Weston, West Virginia.
Periodically one may hear a priest or deacon intone the Penitential Rite (the Kyrie) in Greek, rather than in English ("Lord, have mercy").
As Roman Catholics, we are familiar with this, although there are many questions associated with it.
The first, and most fundamental question, is how did the Roman Rite, which has been in Latin since the middle of the 4th century, end up with only this one prayer being in Greek?
The answer is a complicated quirk of history.
But I'll try to simplify it without reducing it to the point of diminishing its value.
In the first century AD, Greek was the universal language.
It had been spread by Alexander the Great's empire, and was retained as the Roman Empire grew and expanded.
It was the language of commerce, scholarship, and even government — aside from the most official decrees and orations.
While Latin existed and we have a significant portion of the literature and writing produced in Latin during that time, Greek was the everyday language of anyone wishing to communicate with others who were foreigners (not unlike English is today).
[It should be noted that Aramaic was spoken within a small region of Galilee.
It would have been Jesus' native tongue, but it was not used as a liturgical language outside of some very small pockets of Christian communities.]
Thus, when the first liturgies were being composed through oral tradition by the Apostles and their successors, these were conducted in Greek.
By the beginning of the 3rd century, this began to change, and Latin began to take over as the everyday language in the Roman Empire.
The switch was relatively complete in the west by the middle of the 4th century, and thus the Mass as it was celebrated at Rome and in the western Church utilized Latin as its official language — a fact that still holds true to this day.
In the East, however, Greek was retained.
The Kyrie as a liturgical text existed in the Eastern liturgies as early as perhaps the 2nd century.
It was not until much later that it was adopted into the Western liturgies, probably toward the end of the 5th century.
The first real evidence of it existing in the Roman Rite comes from the Second Council of Vaison in 529.
Because it was adopted from the East so late, the Greek Kyrie eleison was retained, as opposed to being translated into Latin (Domine, miserere nobis).
What the Kyrie presents to us is a window into the history of the development of our liturgical worship.
Too often, we think of the Mass we celebrate as being somehow purer or more authentic than past forms, or that it has never really changed at all.
The Kyrie alone reminds us that throughout the course of two millennia, the act of worship in which we engage on a daily/weekly basis has grown and developed in a variety of ways.
It does not give us license to make arbitrary changes to fundamental aspects of the liturgy, nor to treat it as anything less than what it is: namely, the single most profound action that we as humans can undertake.
But it makes us aware that over the centuries have handed down to us a treasure-trove of prayers and actions that, when examined, present to us a vision of the Church that is wider and deeper than we could ever possibly imagine.
Preserving the Greek Kyrie among the Latin prayers of the Mass, or their vernacular translations, is an important reminder to us of our unique and rich heritage as Catholics — on that does not just span 2,000 years of history, but that also transcends the division of Eastern and Western Church and that draws us closer to those earliest Christians who daily pronounced with fervor and devotion those most powerful words: Kyrie eleison.
Article written 09 July 2017
The Rev. James R. DeViese, Jr, JCL, is Pastor of Saint Patrick Church in Weston WV and is Promoter of Justice in the Tribunal of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.