Speaking in another language

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | March 2, 2017

How much of this foreign language do you know in the Mass?

Did you know you speak Greek?

Every time you go to Mass, the celebrant has the option of using Greek at the beginning. During the penitential rite, two of three options offer the “Lord, Have Mercy” — either in English or in Greek. This is the Kyrie eleison.

Before the third edition of the Roman Missal was introduced in 2010, the Kyrie was sometimes used at Mass, often during Lent. Before the changes in the Mass following Vatican II in the 1970s, people would often hear the Kyrie, even though the Mass then was mostly prayed in Latin.

  • Kyrie eleison comes to us from two Greek words:
  • Kyrios means “one who has authority” or “Lord;”
  • Eleos, roughly translates as “mercy.” However, the original Greek word — eleos — is a translation of the Hebrew word, hesed, which is difficult to translate because it covers so much. Hesed generally refers to the loving faithfulness of God for his people throughout all Jewish history; it refers to how God, in many ways and forms, has always loved and cared for his own.

Even though Latin has a long history in our liturgical celebrations, the use of Greek goes back even farther. The Greeks ruled the world before the Romans, and Greek remained the language of learning and of commerce.

Greek was also the language of the first written translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, which was in existence at the time of Jesus. Greek was also the language in which the New Testament was first written.

So, when we use Greek words in the Mass, we’re going far back in our liturgical roots. In fact, the “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the Mass, even in Rome for the first two centuries of the church, was in Greek.

However, the Kyrie does not come from those early liturgies in Rome. Instead, it entered later — copying Eastern-rite liturgies which did have a Kyrie. This Kyrie, however, appeared in different places in the liturgy, not the penitential rite — such as during prayers of petitions or prayers offered for specific people. Records show that the Kyrie was recited in the churches in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century and seems to have begun as part of a litany — a series of praises, invocations and supplications.

The Kyrie — or at least calling upon God’s mercy — is certainly older than Christianity. As a series of praises, the Kyrie — or at least its prototype — can be traced back to Jewish liturgical celebrations. Two of the best examples can be seen in Psalm 118 and Psalm 136, both of which repeat the litany-like phrase: “His mercy endures forever.” In Hebrew, this phrase is ki l’o-lan chas-do.

We are probably used to the thrice-repeated: “Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord have mercy” — as it is chanted first by the celebrant or cantor, and then by the congregation. At one time, this was called “the Minor Litany.” In the Greek Orthodox liturgies, there is a very old tradition of a nine-part minor litany — a triple Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison — to represent the Ascension of Christ through the nine choirs of angels to the celestial throne.

The Kyrie is the only Greek prayer form still commonly used in Catholic Masses. However, that is not the only Greek to hear at Mass. In fact, you know and use more Greek than you think. Some common words used at Mass that come to us from Greek are:

  • Christ — The most important Greek word we use comes from the Greek “Khristos” meaning “anointed.” (Think of the word “chrism,” which is the holy oil used to anoint confirmands and newly ordained priests.) The original Greek verb, khriein, means “to rub or anoint” and it was used by Christians to translate the Hebrew word: “meshiah” (messiah) which also means “God’s anointed.”
  • Liturgy — This comes from the Greek word leitourgos which is a composite word referring to someone who works in a public hall, and this eventually came to mean “one who performs a public ceremony or service, a public servant.” For us, the word emphasizes our role in worshiping God during the Mass and other church services.
  • Eucharist — When we celebrate the Eucharist, we do so in gratitude to God for what he has done for us in Christ, and for the gift of his own body that Jesus shares with us. The word “Eucharist” literally means “thanksgiving.” It comes to us from the Greek word eukharistia meaning “gratitude,” and the related verb Eukharisteo: “to thank, to be thankful,” which is also found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint.
  • Doxology — This is a word we don’t hear that often, but it refers to certain prayers, such as the Gloria at Mass or the concluding words of the Eucharistic prayer: “through him and with him and in him … forever and ever, Amen.” Doxology means “hymn of praise,” and comes from two Greek words meaning “words of glory or praise.”
  • Evangelist — This word refers to the Gospel writers: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. “Evangelist” comes to us from Greek words meaning “to announce” and “good.” So the Greek word euangelistes literally means “preacher of the Good News (the Gospel).”
  • Alpha and Omega — We hear reference to the “Alpha and Omega” four times in the book of Revelation (1:8; 1:17-18; 21:6-7 and 22:13). The first, in the beginning of Revelation is, as the U.S. bishops explain in their translation of the Bible: “A symbolic description of Christ in glory.”
  • Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. When referring to Christ, they mean that he is “the first and the last,” or as Revelation says of the Lord: “The one who is and who was and who is to come, the almighty” (1:8).

While the Mass is not a language lesson, it certainly is a time to remember that all of us — around the world and throughout time — are one in the Lord, the all-encompassing beginning and end, and that we all share the grace of God’s mercy in Christ the Lord.


Sources: “Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary”; Catechism of the Catholic Church; Dives in Misericordia at w2.vatican.va; “Catholic Encyclopedia”; catholicliturgy.com; “The New Dictionary of the Liturgy”; etymonline.com; “The Eucharist, Essence, Form, Celebration;” and catholicexchange.com.


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