From a reader…
In general it seems that we only ask God to have mercy on us. This is most clear in litanies of the saints, where the response for a saint is ‘pray for us’, but the response for, e.g. ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus’ is ‘have mercy on us’.
However, in the Alma Redemptoris Mater, it seems that we ask Mary to have mercy on sinners. Which of these things am I wrong about?
Mary is, after all, the Mother of Mercy Himself.
The Latin line which interests you, at the end, is … Virgo… peccatorum miserere.
That miserere is an imperative from the deponent verb misereor, which in the first place means, “to feel pity, have compassion, pity, compassionate, commiserate”. Misereor can take a genitive “object” (it’s not really an object, but it works out that way, it’s like saying “take pitying notice of X”). So, what the Latin says is really, “have pity on sinners… be compassionate in regard to sinners… and, therefore, intercede with Your Divine Son, who alone is the font of mercy but who will always listen to His Mother’s plea.”
So, asking Mary to have mercy on us is a way of asking her to have compassion for us. She has mercy on us in her manner of having mercy, while Christ has mercy on us in his manner. Sometimes words in Latin have different meanings depending on to whom we apply them. For example, when we speak of pietas in regard to us, we think of piety and dutifulness, but when we apply it to God, we think of His mercy towards us.
That’s what’s going on.
Don’t worry, the Latin hymn we have sung from Compline of the 1st Sunday of Advent in Holy Church for so many centuries all the way through Candlemas, penned by Hermannus Contractus (Herman the Cripple +1054), perhaps based on earlier writings of the Fathers, is not heretical.
Here is one of my favorite settings, by Palestrina, at about the tempo which I prefer. Well sung.