In the Nicene Creed, we profess our personal belief in the one faith of the Church
by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted
CNS file photo/Nancy Wiechec
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles on the Roman Missal in anticipation of the new English-language translation, effective in the United States beginning Nov. 27.
When we begin to use the new English translation of the Roman Missal this year, we will notice a few changes in the wording of the Nicene Creed. These changes, though not many, are significant.
For example, the first word will not be “we” but “I.” Throughout the creed, wherever previously the language read “we believe,” “we confess” or “we look forward,” we will now say “I believe,” “I confess” and “I look forward.” Why the change? First of all, it is a more accurate translation of the Latin word “credo,” which means “I believe.”
Secondly, while it is true that we profess the creed together with other believers, the singular pronoun emphasizes a key aspect of faith namely, that it is a deeply personal decision in response to a wondrous gift from God. No one else can make this decision for us. As the philosopher Josef Pieper said, “Belief can never be half-hearted.” Faith rests on an act of the will. Throughout the creed, then, the word “I” will be used in place of “we” to express this profoundly personal decision of each person present at Mass.
Furthermore, God mysteriously raises each person’s freely offered ”I believe” into the “I” of Jesus Christ during the celebration of Mass. At this moment, each person discovers that his or her own “I” is not alone and forgotten among a sea of individuals, but is expressed in union with the living Body of Christ, the Church, which forms the one new “I” of faith in the Body of the risen Jesus.
Another word that will stand out in the new translation of the creed is “consubstantial,” which takes the place of “one in being.” Both translations point toward the same reality that the Church defended and defined nearly 1,700 years ago. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “The first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 confessed in its Creed that the Son of God is ’begotten, not made, of the same substance (homoousios in Greek) as the Father’” (465). The new translation reflects the desire of the Church to point to the precise meaning of her doctrine: that the Son is a divine person with the same divine nature (or substance) as God. This more clearly links us, theologically and linguistically, with the creed as professed in Latin and Greek for 17 centuries.
A third change to the creed is that instead of saying that Jesus was “born” of the Virgin Mary, we will now say that he was “incarnate” of her. At first glance, it may seem that the Church is just using an archaic word in place of a familiar one. But what is at stake here is much more consequential than that. We confess that Jesus was not just “born of the Virgin Mary,” but that he is “born of the Father before all ages.” He is the only-begotten Son of God, and at the moment of Mary’s “Fiat” in response to the Angel Gabriel, he took on human flesh through her free cooperation that is, he became incarnate. As the Catechism explains, “the Church calls ’Incarnation’ the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it” (461). Moreover, “Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian faith” (463).
Finally, you will notice the replacement of the phrase “suffered, died and was buried,” with “suffered death and was buried.” Again, the change in emphasis here is subtle but important. Recall the words of St. Peter: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps” (1 Pt 2:21). The greatest suffering for human beings is death. In becoming incarnate, Jesus entered into the depths of all human experience, even death itself. By suffering death on the Cross and rising again in glory, he conquered death and opened the way for all to eternal life.
Faith in God is a pearl of great price, a precious treasure for which it is worth sacrificing all else to obtain. When we profess our faith together, as we do when praying the creed, we express what unites us. The few but significant changes of the new English translation of the creed will help us to do this with greater meaning and gratitude.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix is a member of Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral Council 12708. In February 2011, he became vice president of the Vox Clara Committee, formed to oversee the new English translation of the Roman Missal. .