A Staff Report from camelot.spb.ru Science Advisory Board

What does "Kyrie eleison" mean?

June 22, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

In the 1985 song by MR Mister "Kyrie," the lead singer keeps mention a "Kyrie Eleison." Given the context I'm pretty sure it's not a a name, but I havent been able to find its meaning in any language dictionary I've looked through (about 50 or so). Anyways, being this world's smartest human, I figured it would be a good idea to send this your way and see if you could shed some light on what those words might mean. Any response will be greatly appreciated here.

SDStaff Songbird replies:

Lord, have mercy.

OK, perhaps you deserve more of an answer than that. After all, you might be not be Catholic, or you might never have enjoyed the delights of an All-Latin Mass, and the whole thing is Greek to you.

And you'd be right.

Part of the introductory rites of the Roman Catholic Mass, the Kyrie eleison (Greek for "Lord, have mercy") is a song by which the faithful praise the Lord and implore his mercy.

The beginnings of the Kyrie eleison can be found in Holy Scripture, mostly in the book that served as the Church's first prayer book, the Book of Psalms ("Have pity on me, O Lord …" Psalm 6:3).

Written origins of the Kyrie can be traced to the fourth century. In 390 A.D. the Gallic pilgrim lady Aetheria tells how in Jerusalem at the end of Vespers one of the deacons read a list of petitions and "as he spoke each of the names, a crowd of boys stood there and answered him each time, 'Kyrie eleison' ... their cry is without end."

The Kyrie was finally incorporated into the Latin sacramentary in the sixth century for Matins, Mass and Vespers, according to Canon 3 of the Synod of Vaison (529). I remember it like it was yesterday.

In today's Vatican II Church, the Kyrie has been translated into English and is ordinarily prayed/sung by the assembly (which means everyone, ministers included) after the Penitential Rite, in keeping with the rubrics (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 30-31). As a rule, each of the acclamations is said twice (e.g. Presider: "Lord, have mercy." Assembly: "Lord, have mercy." P: "Christ, have mercy." A: "Christ, have mercy." P: "Lord, have mercy." A: "Lord have mercy.")

Why is the Kyrie in Greek? It harkens back to the earliest years of the Church, when the members of the Church in Rome themselves used Greek, and Greek was the language of worship until about the middle of the third century. During the days of the Latin Mass, it was the only remaining Greek prayer.

Now that we have that all cleared up, who wants to know what you do with an aspersorium?

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Staff Reports are written by camelot.spb.ru Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

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