November 2018 Print

The Kyrie and Gloria

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

by Fr. Christopher Danel

The Kyrie eleison, that cry for mercy which is to be found in every liturgy of East and West, seems introduced as if to give grander effect to the outburst of joy and praise which succeeds it in the Gloria in excelsis; it is a deepening of our humiliation, that our triumph may be the better felt.—Cardinal Wiseman


In this article we examine the Kyrie and Gloria, presenting the work of Monsignor Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Monsignor Gihr was a priest of the Archdiocese of Freiburg in Breisgau whose work of liturgical research took place during the time frame spanning the pontificates of Popes Pius IX to Pius XI, including that of Pope St. Pius X. The early years of his work were contemporaneous with the last years in the work of Dom Prosper Guéranger. The English translation of his study appeared in 1902; the original is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgish und aszetish erklärt. Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877.

The Kyrie eleison

After the Introit the priest returns to the middle of the altar and recites the Kyrie eleison (Domine miserere, “Lord, have mercy”), that is, alternately with the acolyte he nine times addresses fervent petitions for mercy to the triune God. The Kyrie is a cry for help of touching humility and simplicity, one proceeding naturally and directly from the heart that is in want, suffering, and distress; hence, we come across it in many parts of the Old and the New Testaments, and formerly it resounded thousands of times from the mouths of the people supplicating God in penitential procession. The Kyrie chant was sung originally in Rome by the clergy and people, later on by two choirs that repeated it alternately until the celebrant gave the sign to cease. The custom of invoking the mercy of God nine consecutive times in the Roman liturgy has been practiced and prescribed since the 11th century.

The frequent repetition of the Kyrie denotes in general the ardor, perseverance and importunity with which, impelled by the consciousness of our sinfulness and unworthiness, we implore mercy and assistance; then there is also therein a still higher, mystical, and hidden meaning, wherefore the number three is thrice repeated. The three Divine Persons are separately and consecutively invoked: first, the Father by the Kyrie eleison; then, the Son by the Christe eleison; and, finally, the Holy Ghost by the Kyrie eleison. The invocation of each of the Divine Persons is repeated exactly three times, to signify that with each of the Divine Persons the two others are at least virtually invoked, since by the fact of their mystical indwelling in one another (circuminsessio, perichóresis) all three of the Divine Persons are and live eternally in one another.

The Kyrie is the only short Greek prayer in the Mass rite that is now retained. The principal reason for this may be that the common supplication of the people to God for help passed already in the earliest times from the Eastern into the Western Church, in which on account of its frequent use the Kyrie became universally known and loved; hence the reason why this ancient and venerable form of supplication was not translated into Latin.

The Kyrie, as an expression of our wants, is never omitted in the celebration of Mass, and has a very appropriate place in its rite. It follows the Introit quite naturally and forms a suitable preparation for the Collect, or for the Gloria. The Introit expresses—sometimes in a vein of joy and praise, again in a strain of tender pity, wailing, or humble supplication—such thoughts and sentiments as should principally occupy the soul at the daily celebration of Mass, that is, it serves as an introduction to the special feast or day. At the remembrance of this celebration, we are so overpowered by the conviction of our own unworthiness, weakness and indigence, that our heart is involuntarily compelled to break out into the oft-repeated supplications of the Kyrie, since God’s mercy alone can make us worthy of celebrating the holy mysteries and days in a proper manner.

The Gloria

After the Kyrie, the Gloria in excelsis Deo not infrequently follows; it is called the great or greater Doxology, because in comparison with the Gloria Patri it contains ampler and fuller praise of the triune God; it is called the Hymn of the Angels, because its opening words were sung by a host of heavenly spirits on the plains of Bethlehem on the night of the birth of Christ.

The Gloria is the sublime triumphal chant of redemption, which partly first resounded from the choir of the heavenly hosts, and partly was an outpouring from the heart of the Church: choirs of angels intoned it at the birth of the Savior; the Church, initiated in the mysteries of God, has continued and completed it. On the plains of Bethlehem the heavenly notes of the “Gloria in excelsis” resounded; they pealed forth with the sublimity and power of tones of “thunder”, full and melodious as “the roaring of many waters.” “When God laid the foundation of the earth, the morning stars praised Him in unison, and the angels made a joyful melody” (Job. 38:4-7): but this rejoicing was silenced when man sinned, and all that was saved for man on earth of holy sentiment and disposition, all that accompanied man as the only gleam of light throughout the darkness of ages, was the hope and the desire of a Redeemer. The Savior’s birth was the happy hour that summoned the angels again to rejoice: their hymn of jubilant praise to the Most High resounded on the air of this fallen world, amidst its longing sighs and lament. More quickening and refreshing to a desolate world was that chant of the angels than ever were fast falling raindrops to a parched up earth. What it now needs and desires is all contained in the words: “Glory be to God in the Highest: and on earth peace to men of good will!” (Lk. 2: 14).

Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis! Thus do we joyfully sing at the celebration of Mass in unison with the choir of heavenly hosts; for it is at the altar that this joyful message of the angel has its perfect and mysterious fulfilment. There all due honor and the highest glory are rendered unto God; for an infinite person—the God-Man Jesus Christ—debases, humbles and sacrifices Himself to the praise, acknowledgment, and adoration of the Divine Majesty. There is imparted true peace to man; for Christ, by His sacrifice, purchased for us reconciliation, pardon, favor, and happiness. The initial words Gloria Deo et pax hominibus constitute the theme of the entire hymn. The Gloria is a chant of praise, thanksgiving, and petition; for the praise of God is interrupted by thanksgiving and petition, which are likewise acts of adoration and contribute to proclaim the divine glory.

Historical Origins

The compiler of this ancient hymn, that is, of the part added to the words of the angels, cannot be historically ascertained; only this much is undoubtedly certain, that the Gloria is not of Latin, but of Greek origin, and that it came from the East. The Latin text, therefore, is not the original one, but a somewhat free translation or a rearrangement of the original Greek text, which for good reasons is ascribed to St. Hilary of Poitiers, Doctor of the Church (+366).

In the Orient, it was customary in the 3rd century to make use of the great Doxology in the liturgy, but not at the Eucharistic Sacrificial celebration, and only as a morning hymn in the Little Hours of the Divine Office. Even now it is not recited at Mass by the Greeks; but only the words of the Angels without further additions are to be met with in some Oriental Mass liturgies, for instance, in that of St. James, where they are repeated three times.

With regard to the insertion of the Gloria into the Roman Mass liturgy, we have only obscure and uncertain accounts. The use of the Gloria was originally and for a long period rather restricted: it served by preference for the expression of Christmas joy and the Easter chant of exultation. Until nearly the close of the 11th century, the rubrics of the Gregorian Sacramentary prevailed, which granted or prescribed the recitation of the Gloria by the bishop on all Sundays and feast days; by the priest, on the contrary, only at Easter. But from that time this privilege of the bishops was extended also to priests. Since the revision of the Missal under Pope St. Pius V (+1572) the following rule holds good: as often as the Te Deum occurs in the Matins of the Office, the Gloria is said in the Mass corresponding to the Office; but if the Ambrosian Hymn is omitted in the Office, then in the Mass of the day the Angels’ Hymn is not to be recited. The Gloria and the Te Deum are enthusiastic, sublime chants of joy and exultation, expressive of festal rejoicing; hence both are omitted on days and in seasons mainly devoted to mourning and penance, or which at least are without a festive character.

Liturgical gestures

While the priest recites the Gloria, he stands erect at the middle of the altar with hands joined: only a few simple ceremonies are prescribed to emphasize and to give stress to certain particular words of the text. At the words Gloria in excelsis, the priest, without raising his eyes at the time, extends and elevates his hands to the shoulders, thus giving vent to his eagerness, enthusiasm and longing to praise and to magnify God. At Deo he again joins his hands and bows his head profoundly toward the Crucifix on the altar (or toward the Blessed Sacrament when exposed); for “holy and terrible is the name of God” (sanctum et terribile nomen ejus, Ps. 110: 9). This profound inclination of the head is several times repeated, to express the interior acts of adoration (adoramus te), of gratitude (gratias agimus tibi), of petition (suscipe deprecationem nostram), of reverence (Jesu Christe), and to give expression to these acts of homage not merely in words, but also by the body in bowing the head. At the last words of the Gloria the celebrant signs himself with the sign of the Cross, principally to close the sublime hymn in a suitable and worthy manner. But as the sign of the Cross is of itself a symbolical representation of the Trinity, it may also be referred to the glory of the Holy Trinity expressed in the concluding words of the hymn; for the acknowledgment of the three Divine Persons is often, although not always, accompanied with the sign of the Cross.

This Hymn of the Angels should be recited and sung with angelic devotion. During it, we should unite in heart and lips with the choirs of the heavenly hosts, who daily assemble around the altar and never grow weary of chanting God’s praise and our happiness, as they once sang at the crib of the new-born Savior. There the blessed spirits themselves sang for us the hymn, to teach us how we should thank the Lord for having raised us up, poor sinful creatures, from the dust, and for having destined us to occupy the thrones of their fallen brethren in the other world, to whom God vouchsafed neither time nor grace for repentance.


God is in Himself, that is, according to His nature, infinitely glorious, infinitely worthy of glory, absolutely glorious, the uncreated glory itself. This interior, eternally unchangeable and impenetrable glory of God, we must admire, praise, adore; it may also be a subject of gratitude for us, inasmuch as by the perfect love of God, the divine glory becomes in a manner our property and the source of holy joy to us. For this love of benevolence unites us most intimately with God. “He that abideth in charity, abideth in Him” (I Jn. 4:16).