What? It’s Not About Me??

Believing: God is the First Person
by Alan Hommerding

“I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe I believe what I believe is right.”

–  George W. Bush

As we prepare for a new Mass translation in which the beginning of the Creed will change from “We believe” to “I believe,” a lot of ink and breath have been expended about the origins of the Creed coming into the Christian liturgy as “we” in the Greek language and being Latinized to “I” much later. So, it is stated, the translators who used “we” were actually being more authentic and faithful to the origins of the Creed in the Mass.

Others point out that a community gathered as the mystical Body of Christ, whose members are all praying “I believe” simultaneously, does not run the risk of misunderstanding that what is being expressed is a lone viewpoint.

In this argument about whether the Creed should begin the first person singular or the first person plural, we lose sight of the fact that the first person of our prayer in the liturgy is God. The shortcoming of both viewpoints is that they focus us on ourselves, on who is doing the believing rather that what is believed. It is the sin of Eden (and/or, perhaps, Babel) all over again, as we proudly make ourselves the center of it all.

There is a danger in getting caught in a “belief whirlpool” of sorts, as Mr. Bush did, with us being the vortex. It is, as common wisdom would say, very easy in this instance to develop a bad case of “I” strain. What tends to happen is that our belief whirlpool pulls in everything that we think—rightly or wrongly—to be true, and elevates it all to the status of infallible dogma. And, as we spin around in our belief whirlpool, we diminish our ability to connect with others around us, to remain open to communication and dialogue. We cannot be part of the ongoing process of divine revelation as Vatican II defined it in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum.

There is a saying in theology: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” It is commonly attributed to Augustine, but it comes much later than that, from an early seventeenth-century German theologian named Rupertus Meldenius. He was writing, about four centuries ago, on the topic of Christian unity. He wrote in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, which got a lot of religious and ethnic issues tangled up with political and civic ones. All sorts of divisions were going on, with splintering instead of reconciliation being the norm for Christians. The situation had a lot in common with the divisive factionalizing we are experiencing today.

In the Easter season, we hear in the Acts of the Apostles that there was disagreement in the Body of Christ as to what was or was not essential from the beginning. The story of the Church is filled with examples of things that were fiercely held as essential that we have come to understand, through the power of the Holy Spirit, were really not. This phenomenon has marked the Church throughout our life, as the Spirit tries to guide us to live in true unity and not mere uniformity. Our differences are an integral part of God’s revelation, and end up being a gift from God. What we seem to run an increasing risk of experiencing in our day, however, is the lack of charity. Whirlpools are not very charitable entities. Nothing that spends most of its energy staying closed in on itself can be. What might help us, in Easter season and every day, is to stop whirling and open ourselves to joining with all those on earth who were joined to Christ with us through baptism in water and the Spirit.

Then we can focus not on ourselves, but on the God who is the first person of our prayer, singing Alleluia! Hallel Yah! Praise God!

from AIM: Liturgy Resources.
Copyright © 2009 by World Library Publications. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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22 comments

  1. There can certainly be disagreement on whether the Creed more properly should be “We believe” or “I believe”. If it’s merely a matter of translation, it’s difficult to argue that “Credo in unum Deum” should be translated as “We believe in one God” when it is very obviously “I believe in one God”. The controversy is rather a question of whether the Latin version of the Missal should say “Credo in unum Deum” or “Credimus in unum Deum”.

    From a more personal perspective, is there not something at least a little troubling about personally proclaiming that “WE” believe something when you really have no idea whether those around you actually believe it or not? Am I making a “profession of faith”, or describing a list of things that the Catholic Church believes and thus I’m supposed to believe as well?

    The fact is, when I proclaim the Creed individaully, saying “I believe”, I can be assured that “I” believe all these things, at least as best as I can in my imperfect and sinful state… when I take part in Mass and change to “We believe…”, can I really be sure that “We” actually believe all these things, or even that “we” would all claim to be trying? Faith, on that level, is a very personal issue. Maybe it’s comforting to some to be part of such a group, but it seems that these are points of doctrine on which an individual needs to be solidly sure of their own acceptance.

    To me, it comes back to a rather puzzling question… “Am I a Catholic because of what I believe, or am I a Catholic because of what Catholics as a group believe, and so since I claim to be Catholic, I must believe these things as well?” Is it more important for me to proclaim what Catholics as a group hold true, or do I need to affirm my own belief, both to myself and as a witness to those around me?

    A while back…it was several years ago on “Pro-Life” wekend, there was a prayer that was read from cards in the pews by all present at Mass. At one point, the prayer read something like this:

    “We choose and defend life at all stages, from conception to natural death. We oppose the evil of abortion and all laws which support this evil…”

    All I could think, looking around the Church, was that a significant number of those uttering this prayer were either openly pro-choice or at least had voted for pro-choice politicians without a second thought. SO… am I being cynical in saying this prayer with them, knowing that they are, in a sense, lying?

    That’s how I often feel when saying the Creed as a group having to say “WE BELIEVE”.

    1. Couldn’t have said it better Jeffery. At Easter’s renewal of baptismal promises, the priest asks, “Do you believe…? and the response is “I do.” It is not “we do” as this is not a communitarian issue, but one of personal belief, personal salvation albeit tied to the community that God is saving.
      But you are right, I have no idea what the person next to me believes, but I do know what I believe and that’s the point! I can lie for myself if I say “I believe” and I don’t really, but I don’t want to lie for others by saying “we believe” especially if I don’t know. Let them do it for themselves, either tell the truth or lie. Then let God be the judge.

  2. “Whirlpools are not very charitable entities. Nothing that spends most of its energy staying closed in on itself can be. ”

    I am not going to comment on “I” or”We”, but on the above sentence. Often (not always, but often) charity is very much lacking in these discussions, and so I thank you, Alan, for calling this to our attention. We do not all walk in lockstep because (ISTM) that leaves room for the Spirit to walk with us. Those who choose to walk with the Spirit should not be uncharitably vilified. Again, thank you, Alan!

  3. Following Liturgiam Authenticam, clearly “Credo” should be “I believe” – that’s a no-brainer. But a communal “We believe” would also be in accord with the orthodox faith of the Church east and west. It is used in the east, and it was used in the medieval west (eg Spain). My experience of the current “We believe” differs somewhat from Jeffrey’s. I find it communal – we’re united in our baptism into the three Persons, and it’s as much about renewing our baptismal faith and our commitment to baptismal discipleship as it is a catalog of doctrine for the intellect to assent to. I hope and pray we’re united in the doctrines, of course – but these doctrines are all mysteries which none of us understands exhaustively.

    1. But the Orthodox use the singular when saying the creed liturgically, certainly in Greek – “Πιστεύω”, not “Πιστεύομεν” and in the translations used by both the Russians and the Greeks in the US. So far as I know they always have.

  4. Before we wade too deep into the muddied waters of first person singular and plural, may I offer a historical note?

    The use of the first person plural to translate the Creed was in accordance with the translation principles of 1969 that placed an emphasis on going to ultimate text sources; in the case of the Missal, that was not the Missal itself but the symbolum in the original conciliar Greek, which indeed begins in the first person plural. So, it was a correct translation under those principles, and venerable in that light.

    The Missal text in Latin of the symbolum might be said to begin with a nod to the older Roman creed, the Apostles’ Creed, which in its immemorial use as part of baptism begins in the first person singular. This too is a venerable tradition.

    Thus, let’s not let this become the occasion for shibboleths, the I vs We faction.

  5. “In this argument about whether the Creed should begin the first person singular or the first person plural, we lose sight of the fact that the first person of our prayer in the liturgy is God.”

    I know what the author means, but this misuse of grammatical terminology is the sort of thing that drives me crazy; maybe it’s just because I’ve spent the morning doing advanced Spanish grammar homework. Deixis, of which the three grammatical persons are an example, is a grammatical concept, by definition not one of absolute importance, and certainly not the sin of Eden.

    “The shortcoming of both viewpoints is that they focus us on ourselves, on who is doing the believing rather that what is believed.”

    Not at all – it’s simply part and parcel of our language. We’re no more focusing on ourselves than we do when we say something like “I love you.” It *can* be true that we’re focusing on ourselves in either statement, but it’s not a given that we *are* simply because we’re speaking in the first person.

    “Then we can focus not on ourselves, but on the God who is the first person of our prayer, singing Alleluia! Hallel Yah! Praise God!”

    A. I think you mean “Hallelu Yah.”
    B. Don’t look now, but “Hallelujah/Hallelu Yah” is a command – in the *second* person plural!

      1. Usually the priest starts off saying “We believe,” and people pick it up from there. Sorry; should have been more clear that the priest is usually alone in reciting the first two English words.

  6. It may be worth pointing out that

    (i) as already mentioned above, using “We do”, as well as being faithful to the Greek pisteuomen, ‘We believe’, points to the communal nature of liturgy but also to the fact that we celebrate as a manifestation of the Body of Christ.

    (ii) Historically, the Creed was a ‘refugee’ from the initiation rites and only appeared in the Mass around the 10th century.

    (iii) In some parishes, at the Easter Vigil the two professions of faith are combined in the interests of avoiding needless duplication (cf. SC) and there is a two-fold response to the “Do you believe in…” questions in the profession of faith. Those who have not been baptized respond “I do” (making their personal commitment of faith), followed immediately by all those who have been already baptized in the assembly who respond “We do”.

    This “I do” ─ “We do” dual response not only makes the point that two different things are going on here but also says very clearly to the elect that this time they are saying “I do” but the next time they make this response they too will say “We do” as part of the Body.

    1. Paul, either you or your parish are making things up! The Roman Missal of 1970 and 2002 at the renewal of baptismal vows does not have “we do” as a response in English it has, “I do!” This includes not only the Vigil of Easter, but Easter Sunday.
      In terms of the ritual of the RCIA published in 1987 with an addendum for combined rites for catechumens and candidates at the Easter Vigil, and the norm today for the RCIA and its rituals of initiation, at the Vigil of Easter, first the catechumens are baptized but individually declare their Catholic faith with an “I do”, not a “we do.” Then the candidates already baptized along with the Catholics present, renew their baptismal promises with an “I do” not a “We do.” Then they are sprinkled with the Easter Water the baptized were baptized in. Then the newly baptized along with the candidates celebrate Confirmation and then all receive the ultimate sacrament of our initiation and on-going conversion, the Holy Eucharist. No where during Easter, the night before or the day of does anyone say “We do” except in those places that make it up as they go.

      1. Fr Allan, have a look at page 209 of the 1962 Missale Romanum. There you’ll find this dialogue, for the renewal of baptismal promises:

        Celebrans: Creditis in Deum, Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae?
        Omnes: Credimus.

        Two things follow from this. Firstly, it would seem that Pope Pius XII, in promulgating the 1951 text of the restored Easter Vigil, saw no conflict where you see one, namely in making a personal affirmation of faith in the form of a communal profession. Secondly, it might be prudent to withhold the allegations of “making it up as you go” till you’re sure a Pope wasn’t complicit in the outrage. 😉

  7. Dear Martin Barry! God bless you. Glad you pointed that out because you are correct! Also, in the 1965 missal, which I have a mint copy, which has the 1962 missal with Latin in the margin and English as the main copy and a good translation of the English, I might add, both in Latin and in the English translation it is indeed “We do, not I do!” This renewal is for the congregation, it is not a baptism liturgy and I don’t have the baptism liturgy book to see what it says.

    However, the creed is not again said in this Easter Vigil Mass, everything above is a prelude though to the Mass.

    Of course on normal Sundays it is Credo or I believe. So the question is why did the 1970 missal change the Easter Vigil responses ( I haven’t looked at the typical Latin Edition of 2002–which may actually have “We believe,” but eventually I’ll check–but could be more of our lame duck excuse for the English translation of 1970?
    Thanks for pointing this out–very interesting!

    1. You’re welcome! I believe a more recent Pope has pointed out that the 1962 Missal was never abrogated. 🙂 I think this means that the parishes Paul mentions are mixing in elements from the Extraordinary Form when they renew their baptismal promises in the first person plural!

      1. The 2002 Latin Edition OF Mass has the celebrant asking “Creditis” to those to be baptized and their response is “Credo!” “I believe!”
        The American sacramentary for the renewal of baptismal vows after the baptized and then being sprinkled must be an American adaptation and also what we do on Easter Sunday in place of the Creed–with sprinkling afterward–inculturation? In the Latin 2002, the Credo is prescribed on Easter Sunday and the sprinkling rite in place of the penitential rite.

        At any rate, the old adage, “do the red” and “read the black” pertains to every concoction of a missal we have! No argument there I hope!

  8. I get so tired of this debate. Sure the original version of the Creed says “We believe” but that is not the version which was inserted into the Roman liturgy. When this was done “Credimus” was changed to “Credo”. You don’t do that unless there is a very good reason to do so. The fact that the reason is somewhat obscure today doesn’t mean that it was not a valid decision which we ought still to accept.

  9. I am taking it as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s wry sense of humor that, after the post which tried to focus on the need to move past the historic/linguistic debate, the subsequent comments get mired in the historic/linguistic debate!

  10. Alan, I like your work very much and I know what you are getting at, but in this instance, I’m afraid its feels like changing the subject = papering over a genuine problem. The Catholic faithful now have, in fact, internalized a meaning and are being told “tut, tut, it’s not in the Latin, so forget it.” They object. Perhaps they strenuously object. I don’t see this as egotism, but as resistence to something that appears to them to be a sudden and arbitrary imposition, diminishing the full expression of a truth which they treasure. Dignum et justum est that they object. They are plainly not convinced that the fact that it reads Credo in Latin trumps all aces.

    It is indeed an ironic situation. We labor night and day to cultivate lay understanding and interiorization of the spiritual meaning of all parts of the Mass, but then, when it gets in the way of the smooth functioning of the latest edict from Rome, we tell people to forget it and “Concentrate on God!” But they don’t have a blank slate. And you haven’t demonstrated that what they think is “wrong” either; it’s perfectly orthodox, it’s just inconvenient.

  11. Wow! No discussion is so removed from politics that it still can’t take a gratuitous pot shot at George Bush. So much for “in all things charity”!

  12. Ioannes – I took no pot shot at Mr. Bush – I quoted him, and observed that he seemed to be trapped in the sort of “belief whirlpool” that many of us also get trapped in.

    Rita – I understand your perspective; it has also seemed to me that, at this point in time, keeping this debate alive can also be a kind of “papering over” if we allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that our ongoing expressions of dissatisfaction will alter the course of this event. In a way, it “papers over” a deeper dissatisfaction that, for all the claim to a renewed baptismal ecclesiology post-Vatican II, no substantive, structural, systemic changes were ever put into place to reflect that ecclesiology.

    In terms of peoples’ objections … speaking for myself, I only have been aware of those coming from the very vocal poles of opposition/acceptance. I fear that most of those who find the new translation inconvenient or wonder about its necessity will either shrug, stay and do it – or silently leave, and never return.

  13. “In a way, it “papers over” a deeper dissatisfaction that, for all the claim to a renewed baptismal ecclesiology post-Vatican II, no substantive, structural, systemic changes were ever put into place to reflect that ecclesiology.”

    Alan, interesting point, this last one! But I would say it exposes it, or re-opens the wound, rather than papers it over. Thank you for naming this malaise!

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