February 23, 2018

Kyrie Eleison: Lord, Have Mercy

Kyrie Eleison: Lord, Have Mercy


One of the oldest and most used prayers in the Church, Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) can also be a very confusing prayer, so it’s worth a moment’s reflection, even before we think about how it is used in Mass. The first thing to think about is that while you will find this expression in Church Latin dictionaries, it isn’t Latin at all. It’s Greek. And what’s especially odd is that there is no practical reason for that. There is a perfectly good Latin expression, Domine, miserere, that translates the words of this prayer. So clearly something else must be going on here.

Add to that the popular conception that the prayer is one of penance, asking God to spare us from a righteous punishment — so asking for mercy in the sense of being forgiven for our sins even if we don’t deserve it. If we reach back as far as we can within Christian usage, we find people like the pilgrim nun Egeria, in the Holy Land for Easter in the late fourth century, where she is surprised to learn that at the end of evening prayer (vespers) the deacons would read out lists of petitions, and names of people to be prayed for, and after each the boys’ choir would call out Kyrie eleison. The clue here is that the prayer has more to do with God’s gracious mercy than our sinfulness.

Empowered by God

And that’s the point, really. The Kyrie is about how we have been empowered by God to ask for what we need.

This survives in the other uses of the Kyrie in the Latin Church, for example in the Litany of the Saints. All good litanies start out with the Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord have mercy; triplet, and it is clear that as we invoke the presence of God and all the saints, it is not to reflect on our sinfulness, but rather to ask their assistance in whatever it is we are about to do – baptize, ordain, whatever. And if we look at the other end of the litany, where we get the actual intercessions, we see what Jesuit liturgist Joseph Jungmann thought was the best translation of the Kyrie – Te rogamus, audi nos, which in typical Roman brusqueness means, “We implore you, hear us!” No please or thank you, thank you very much.

So the expression, “Lord, have mercy,” seems to have begun life as a handy way to invoke God’s blessing. And to my mind, its common use and special meaning were at the base of why the expression was kept in Greek, even when the liturgy changed to Latin, and now to many languages. It is also why the Greek is still in the Roman Missal we have today, as well as in the missals and hymnals published by OCP.

An expression of joy

Christians, and especially Catholics, may not think too much about this, but it is huge. The notion that we can invoke God’s blessing, that we can intercede with God and expect a result is an amazing feature of our faith. It can get to the point where God’s favor, the mercy of God, will often have descended upon us even before we’ve asked. And so you will hear people cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” in all kinds of situations. How do some Christians respond:

  • When they win $20.00 in the lottery? Lord, have mercy!
  • When they get that promotion at work? Lord, have mercy!
  • When they get a good grade on a paper? Lord, have mercy!
  • When they don’t get hit by the person running the red light? Lord, have mercy!

It is an expression of joy for blessings received, it is almost as if life is too good to believe. Every one of us could create a litany of thanksgiving for the blessings we receive during a single week, sometimes during a single day. Try it for yourself, say Kyrie eleison to yourself for each of the moments in your day when God sends a blessing, be it large or small. This isn’t as strange as it might first sound. Where I grew up there was a strong Ukrainian presence, and I was familiar with the Ukrainian version of this prayer (Hospody, pomyluj), which you would hear often at the liturgy, but also in the world.

A gift of God’s mercy

In this context the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) can still have a penitential aspect. We are offering God thanks for mercy, not trying to buy it. It is almost as if God’s generosity is too good to believe. we need to convince ourselves that God does want to forgive us. It is we who are slow to believe in that wonderful gift of God’s mercy. In the Mozarabic liturgy, which was the Catholic liturgy celebrated through a large section so Spain, there was a form of General Absolution, and during the liturgy, the people would recite Kyrie eleison some 300 times. Clearly, God doesn’t need to be asked more than once, but maybe we need to convince ourselves, and so we need to say it and to hear it over and over again.


We see this penitential aspect in the version of this prayer we encounter at Mass. The writings of Amalar of Metz suggested adding verses to the Kyrie at Eucharist. His version went, “Kyrie eleison, Domine Pater miserere (Lord Father be merciful); Christe eleison, miserere qui nos redemisti sanguine tuo (be merciful who redeemed us by your blood); Kyrie eleison, Domine, Spiritus Sancte, miserere (Lord, Holy Spirit, be merciful).”

History of the Kyrie at Mass

We know that the Kyrie had entered the Mass by the early sixth century, but its exact content and placement was pretty fluid. Pope Gregory the Great asked to have a penitential procession added to the start of Mass to combat an infestation of disease. But these rules would come and go. At any rate by the time of Trent, the litany, which began with the triple invocation of Kyrie, Christe, Kyrie was firmly part of the Roman liturgy. This Christian love of having all things in three led to a problem. Initially the Kyrie would be sung three times, to be repeated by a second chorus three times, but later, and this was the situation before Vatican II, there were a total of nine invocations, and so the response to the second Kyrie eleison was Christe eleison, and the response to the last Kyrie was nothing at all. It led to a lot of confusion.


With the reforms of Vatican II we are back to having a 3 calls and 3 responses, just like the start of a litany, and while it is part of the Penitential act, it is important to remember that it celebrates the lavish nature of God’s mercy. Some people wonder how we can go from Kyrie eleison to Gloria in excelsis Deo – but at the end of this brief article, perhaps we can agree that this makes sense. Thanking God for the abundance of God’s mercy naturally leads into the desire to give God glory.


Glenn CJ Byer
Glenn CJ Byer

Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the anointing of the sick. He speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.

This blog series is intended to provide a more in-depth look at the various sung parts of the Mass—their origin, history, current usage, etc. Explore more from this series:


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