G.K. Chesterton once quipped that “familiarity is fatigue.” This can describe our approach to the Mass. Because of the predictability of the Liturgy there is always a great danger that we overlook just how charged with meaning everything we do during Mass is. For a number of reasons, the greatest danger of this may occur during the recitation of the Creed. The goal of this essay is not to examine those reasons but to re-examine the Creed’s meaning so that we hopefully can examine ourselves and ask whether we are praying the Creed or merely saying it.
When the new English translation of the Liturgy was given to us a few years ago, one of the more glaring changes was in the translation of the Latin word Credo. Previously it was translated as “We Believe” while the new translation renders it more accurately in the first person singular “I believe.” To think that the goal of the new translation was simply to be more faithful to the Latin however somewhat misses the point. It is meant to help us to grasp the deeply personal nature of the Creed.
There is a danger of looking upon the Creed as more or less like a Catholic pledge. We as Catholics come together and here is the list of things that we agree upon. But this is a reduced understanding of why we profess the Creed. Ultimately I think this stems from a reduction of what it means to be Christian. As Pope Benedict said in his first Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “(B)eing Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The Creed is meant to reflect the nature of this personal encounter with the Person of Jesus Christ. That is why “we believe” was insufficient.
By reflecting on the personal nature of “I believe” we can capture its deeper meaning, a meaning that Pope Benedict put at the heart one his last gifts to the Church—the Year of Faith. In his Motu Proprio declaring the Year of Faith, he said that it should be a special time in which the Faithful could “rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith” (Porta Fidei, 9). His intention was to draw the Church into reflection on the two dimensions of faith—the subjective (i.e. “the act of faith”) and the objective (i.e. “the content of faith”).
In his extended meditation on the Creed entitled Introduction to Christianity, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said that the phrase “I believe” is literally translated as “I hand myself over to.” To hand myself over to another is an act of deep personal trust in the Other. To pray the Creed we are literally praying “I hand myself over to the Father”, “I hand myself over to the Son”, and “I hand myself over to the Holy Spirit.”
To believe in God is not merely to say I think He exists. Biblically speaking to “believe in” means to trust absolutely. This is why the “faith versus works” controversy ultimately is a red herring. To believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior is not assent to the fact that the Son of God was incarnated. You could readily admit that and it have no effect on you. Instead to “believe in Him whom He [the Father] has sent” (John 6:29) means that I turn myself over to Him in absolute trust and in so giving myself I do all that He says. This is what makes Peter’s act of Faith at the end of the Bread of Life Discourse beautiful (see John 6:67-69). Our Lord had given His followers His teaching about the Eucharist that was incomprehensible without the Resurrection. He knew this but was looking for something from the Apostles. Peter and the Apostles do not understand at all but they stay with Him because they trust Him completely (“where else would we go?”). They do not understand but they trust and have turned themselves over to Him. John is also clear that it was also at this moment that Judas decided he could not make that same act of entrustment (John 6:70-71).
This highly personal act of believing also needs an object. It is not enough to merely say “I believe.” Belief requires an object and the object is the content of faith that Pope Benedict speaks of. This is why the Catechism mentions that “faith seeks understanding…it is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith, and to understand better what He has revealed; a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith, increasingly set afire by love”(CCC 158). We must have definitive knowledge of the One Who has revealed Himself. No mere eclectic collection of facts will do. Instead it requires an organic cohesion in which it all fits together. The Catechism recalls how the Greek word for the Creed, Symbolon, captures this necessary cohesion of parts. “This word meant half of a broken object, for example, a seal presented as a token of recognition. The broken parts were placed together to verify the bearer’s identity” (CCC 188). God has progressively revealed Himself and it was Jesus who but all the “broken parts” together and preserves them intact through the Church. The content is like His seamless garment—if you begin to tear at a single string of belief it all falls apart. There can be no pick and choose what I agree with or don’t or deciding what an “issue for salvation” is and what is not. It all fits together perfectly and that is one of the things that makes the Faith beautiful. It is the goal of the Evil One (dia-bolon where we get diabolic) to pull it apart. There can be no act of faith without an object and there can be no faith without a definitive Creed. As Dorothy Sayers wrote in her essay of the same name, it is either a “Creed or Chaos.”
Recall that above I said that “We believe” was insufficient, but I did not say it was wrong. That is because in a certain sense believing is also an ecclesial act. The content of what I believe did not merely fall out of the sky into my lap. But instead was given to me through the Church. The Church that Christ founded to protect the deposit of faith has faithfully handed it on to me. As St. Cyprian said, “no one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother.”
This is why I can never profess the Creed without also calling to mind those who have died with it on their lips and asking for their intercession. I cannot recite it without a sense of deep gratitude for the “cloud of witnesses” who have gone before me and explained the Church’s teachings. I cannot recite it without also praying for those members of the Church Militant who have passed the Faith on to me directly.
This partially explains what my demeanor should be during its profession, but ultimately its greatness consists in the fact because of its purity (even after 2000+ years) that it is a supreme Act of Faith. Each Act of Faith we make only deepens the virtue of faith and prepares us to join those who have professed it before—even, God willing, to the point of martyrdom. The Creed can never be reduced to a mere pledge and we must consciously and deliberately pray it so that our Amen echoes to the halls of heaven. So, are you praying it or merely saying it?