I have mercy on the brain.

I have mercy on the brain.

Pope Francis has announced a Jubilee Year of Mercy to begin in December. I am in the midst of a research project on the sacrament of reconciliation, in which God’s mercy is implored and praised. I was curious to see how often the texts of the Roman Catholic Mass speak of mercy so I examined the texts for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time (otherwise known as August 9th). Depending on which form of the penitential act is used, presider and people ask between one and four times for God’s mercy. Twice, the Gloria asks for mercy. The Prayer over the Offerings refers to mercy as an attribute of God, evident in the provision to the Church of the gifts to be offered. Eucharistic Prayer I does not specifically request God’s mercy in the 2011 translation (though it does ask God for pardon). Eucharistic Prayer II asks that God have mercy on “us all” in the former and in the current version. The 2011 translation of Eucharistic Prayer III refers to the Father as “merciful,” revising the former translation’s appeal to the Father “in mercy and in love [to] unite all your children.” Twice, the 2011 translation of Eucharistic Prayer IV refers to mercy. The first instance (“And when through disobedience he had lost your friendship, you did not abandon him to the domain of death. For you came in mercy to the aid of all, so that those who seek might find you. Time and again you offered them covenants and through the prophets taught them to look forward to salvation.”) adds the word mercy where the idea of mercy or pardon is absent in the former translation. The second instance is a reference to the “merciful Father” where the former translation asks the Father “in your mercy” to grant the assembly to enter into the heavenly inheritance. The Lord’s Prayer does not mention mercy, though petition for forgiveness features prominently. The Embolism asks that by God’s mercy “we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress.” The Lamb of God has two specific petitions for mercy but if it is sung and extended, these petitions may be repeated a number of times. By my count, there are as few as five and as many as nine direct petitions for mercy with a few other references to mercy or the need / hope for forgiveness.

The point of this exercise concerns John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia and Sacrosanctum concilium. In the exhortation (no. 18), John Paul draws upon Pius XI to express concern about the loss of a sense of sin. No. 34 of the liturgy constitution holds that “the rites should be distinguished by a noble simplicity; they should be short, clear, and unencumbered by useless repetitions; they should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation.”

Too much of God’s mercy is never enough for human sinners, but does requesting God’s mercy nine or more times in the space of an hour or so help or hurt the cause of recovering a sense of sin? Do calls for God’s mercy sink into my / your / our bones or do they become background noise so that less might be more?


  1. I had an interesting conversation recently with an active parishioner and lifelong Catholic. Discussing the liturgy, he told me that he comes to Mass for the preaching, the music, and the announcements. He “never listen[s] to a single word” of the rest of the Mass. “If only we could get rid of everything other than the preaching, the music, the announcements, and maybe [!!!] the Gospel reading!”

    My guess is that if the ritual texts ask for God’s mercy 9 times but the homilist talks about the upcoming fall festival, most people will leave Mass thinking about the fall festival.

  2. Well, the image from the Greek helps. Who wouldn’t want to be anointed by God with the best olive oil? No wonder the Orthodox Church orders the Kyrie to be chanted for up to, what, forty times or so after certain petitions. The sounds are also soothing. Who would care about the fall festival?

    The same goes for the Jesus Prayer.

  3. Thanks for this post–I found myself immediately wondering how many times “thanks,” “give,” “bless,” and so forth, appeared. In your example, you consider what the frequent appearance of a word like “mercy” means. For a people who prefer soundbytes and single sentences, how can we hear a word as many as nine times and not cease to hear it?

    In discussing the revised text of the Gloria (which has its own repeated words) a student of mine suggested that the repetition of a concept interrupts our flow of thought–that we are asked to pause, and to focus, on a word which the liturgy brings before us. Suddenly, a small word like “mercy” becomes brightened by that extra time before our ears and eyes.

    On the one hand, we humans can miss even a spotlight! But, with Pope Francis’ invitation to ponder mercy more deeply this coming year, considering how our own texts pause, and ask us to ponder mercy more deeply, is an excellent point for liturgical catechesis.

  4. My sense is that while the word mercy could have a 5 to 9 usage spread depending on the Eucharistic prayer, the whole of those prayers is loaded with the attributes and results of mercy. Maybe it is background noise as suggested by #2 Thomas but when the year of mercy was proclaimed, I was glad for the opportunity to put it into the forefront.

    This article is a great jumping off point for me and thought provoking.

    I’d also like to know what they’re serving for dinner at the fall festival.

  5. I tend to think the more (mention of/petition for) mercy the better. One of the things I like about the Roman Mass is that even though we have a “penitential rite” at the beginning, the requests for mercy are actually scattered throughout the liturgy. It seems to me only fitting.

    As to Scott’s comment… I suspect that it is all too true of many parishioners. Maybe that’s an argument for singing more of the liturgy. Sung texts have a way of sticking in your head. No spoken text ever became an earworm.

  6. I very much enjoyed this post (I usually enjoy things that involve enumeration, which ability I think is one of the best features of the internet, pdf and word-processing software, etc.). The post encouraged me to go back and re-read “Misericordiae Vultus” – the papal bull announcing the Jubilee of Mercy.
    Hopefully, for all of us, we can move past mercy on the brain, or on our lips and in our ears at the liturgy, to become evangelizing incarnations of that mercy. Pope Francis doesn’t seem terribly concerned with the liturgical facet of mercy; if nothing else, read the concluding paragraph “Misericordiae Vultus” for some inspiration.

  7. I don’t really think that altering the number of iterations of “mercy” as word or concept within the Mass is capable of influencing our recovery of a sense of sin in a very robust way; the influence/effectiveness of our liturgical language depends upon the formation in knowledge and discipleship we bring to the Mass. If I have an underdeveloped sense of my fallen, impoverished condition, mercy is a pretty vacuous concept, no matter how well either paucity or plethora of mentions may foreground it in my consciousness.

  8. I wonder though, if I am looking for something ( a worship service) less wordy. (Getting older I suppose.) I’ve wondered if we could count all our words used at a Mass or a service – hymns, liturgy, homily, announcements, everything!! – would we then for the next weekend decide to trim some of our wordiness or would some of us decide to increase our verbiage?

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