Some Thoughts on the Creed and the Liturgy

Early in my days as a Catholic (i.e. the early 1980s), I worked in a parish that was on the cutting edge of what I guess would be called “progressive” liturgy. We did the RCIA up big, climaxing in immersion baptisms at a six-hour Easter Vigil. We occasionally used some not-yet-authorized (and, in the end, never-authorized) Eucharistic Prayers produced by ICEL. And we never used the Creed at Mass on Sundays.

I must have been drawn to progressive liturgy (generally the singing was better and people were friendlier), because during the next decade or so I belonged to two other parishes where the Creed was used rarely if ever. I heard various reasons given for this. One was that the entire liturgy, and the Eucharistic Prayer in particular, was a proclamation of faith, so the Creed was redundant. Another was that it was contrary to the nature of liturgical celebration to insert a “loyalty oath” in the middle. Yet another was that the language was inherently patriarchal and offended people.

Either times have changed or I have (probably both), but now I virtually never attend a Sunday Mass where the Creed is not said. I suspect there are one or two places within driving distance of me where I could go if I wanted to avoid the Creed, but why would I do that? Creed-avoidance was never a motivator for me. Younger clergy (by which I mean those under 60) seem much more inclined to “say the black and do the red” than the previous generation (though some places seem to prefer the Apostles’ Creed to the Nicene–an authorized substitution–perhaps because it shaves 45 seconds off the liturgy). But I think that we have not really thought that much about why we do say the Creed at Mass.

It is well know that the Creed is a latecomer to the Eucharistic liturgy.  The New Testament contains some creed-like statement (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3-6; 1 Tim 3:16) that might have had a liturgical origin, but we cannot be sure of that. Creeds certainly had a place in the baptismal liturgy, maybe from the outset, but surely from the second century on. Justin Martyr described the act of Baptism interlaced with credal statements:

There is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe…. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.

The Apostolic Tradition in the third century and Ambrose in the fourth century explicitly testify to a similar intertwining of the baptismal washing with a profession of faith. In other places, of course, a credal profession of faith preceded Baptism.

Even once the Nicene Creed reached its final form in 381 as an ecumenical statement of faith, it does not seem to have been envisioned for use in the Eucharistic liturgy. It was first used in the Eucharist in Constantinople in the early sixth century, introduced by a Patriarch of dubious orthodoxy who wanted to assert his adherence to past teachings. There it was used (as it still is in the Byzantine liturgy) immediately before the Eucharistic Prayer, perhaps to signify the orthodoxy of those preparing to enter into the divine mysteries. It first appeared in the West in Spain in the late sixth century, placed between the Eucharistic Prayer and the Our Father, seemingly as part of the preparation for communion. It didn’t appear in Europe outside of the Iberian peninsula until the late eighth century, when Charlemagne (or maybe–let’s be real–Alcuin) placed it in the familiar position after the Gospel (and homily). Finally, as to one untimely born, it was introduced in Rome in the early eleventh century, perhaps not without a bit of arm-twisting  by Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Though the original form of the Nicene Creed was in the first person plural (“We believe”), since it was a collective statement of the bishops gather in council, in most places it has be used liturgically in the first person singular. When English-speaking Catholics began using the 2011 translation of the Mass, which switched from “We” back to “I,” some suspected nefarious motives behind the change–a capitulation to Western individualism or something like that. But in fact, the change not only more accurately translated the Latin, it also reflected the actual practice of most Christian with regard to liturgical use of the Creed, both down through the centuries and today.

So does any of this tell us anything about why we use the Creed at Mass? It suggests that the Creed is a secondary (or, maybe tertiary) element of the Mass, not only because it was a relatively late arrival, but also because in the Latin Rite the vast majority of Masses (i.e. on weekdays) are celebrated without it. But it also suggests that it is not unimportant, since people went to the trouble to introduce it. Often, as in Constantinople and Spain, it was introduced to counteract heretical beliefs, enshrining in the liturgy a profession of orthodox faith. At other times, as in Charlemagne’s realm and eventually in Rome, it was introduced as a valuable marker of unity with the Universal Church of East and West (this is one reason why I dislike the use of the Apostles’ Creed at Mass, since it is a local Western creed and not ecumenical).

Both of these seem like good reasons to use the Creed in the Eucharistic Liturgy. Some might argue, as I used to hear folks argue, that this introduces a loyalty oath into Mass. To which I might reply, “OK, what’s wrong with loyalty oaths, particularly since it is God to whom we are pledging our loyalty?” It seems to me that the Creed does something unique in the liturgy: unlike the Eucharistic Prayer’s recitation of God’s mighty acts, it is our act of binding ourselves to the triune God in faith. It is a promise both personal (“I believe”) and communal, recited in one voice. It is (as I suggested this past Trinity Sunday) like a marriage vow, by which we bind ourselves anew to God in faith. Which seems like a good thing to do when God’s people gather to celebrate the Lord’s passover.

27 comments

  1. In the Orthodox liturgy, the deacon still calls out “The doors!” before the creed is said. It is a reminder that from here on in, the liturgy was reserved to the initiates. So, in a very real way, reciting the creed is a way of renewing baptismal promises.

    There is a Protestant scholar who believes that “pistou” in St. Paul’s letters should be rendered “allegiance” rather than “faith.” Assuming that is true, making a loyalty oath to God during the liturgy makes perfect sense.

  2. Fritz, you are absolutely right that the Creed was a refugee from the rites of initiation, not formally becoming part of the Mass until the 10th century or so.

    The liturgical question is: does it make any sense to make an individual profession of faith in the midst of a communal liturgy in which all are united as a celebrating body? Viewed in that way, it does look rather like showing your trade union card before being admitted to the meetings in the inner sanctum.

    Using “We believe”, from the Greek pisteuomen, earlier than the Latin, at least helped to make it less of an individualistic act. The revisers of the 2011 Missal appeared ignorant of that, in their desire to replicate the Latin, which came later. That Missal, in its literalness, scuppered the communal dimension completely, and don’t let’s talk about the ecumenical damage.

    By perpetuating exclusive language it addtionally guaranteed that the profession of faith would be perceived as a male-dominated text designed to oppress people. Its use of “consubstantial with” in place of the text used on the eastern side of the Atlantic, “of one being with” (different from, and better than, the US “one in being with”, which was always dubious) augmented the sense of alienation. Most parishioners now have no idea what they think they are signing up to because the language has been obfuscated.

    Since the 1970s liturgists have been saying that everything that is expressed in the Creed is expressed, in a rather more lyrical form, in the Eucharistic Prayer, especially EP IV. Viewed in that way, the Creed then becomes an unnecessary duplication, one of those that SC suggested should be removed.

    I can see a justification for including the Creed on Christmas Day, when we celebrate the incarnation which the Creed reinforces, and perhaps on Easter Sunday. Otherwise, let’s quietly drop it. We should not let ourselves be tied by what was in effect an accident of history. The whole purpose of the Second Vatican Council was to liberate us from things like that.

    1. Paul,

      I’m pretty sure everything, viewed from our side, is an accident of history. I think the liturgy reformers were naive to think it otherwise.

      Also, oddly enough, at least in the US, Easter Sunday is the one Sunday when the Creed is not required, since it can be replaced with the renewal pf baptismal promises.

      1. Then why not renew baptismal promises every Sunday instead of the Creed. One could also use the Nicene Creed, especially during Lent.

      2. Sorry, I meant using the Apostle’s Creed, especially during Lent. It’s early in the AM.

      3. Sure, you could do either of those things. Neither has much precedent in liturgical tradition (though I believe in the late Middle Ages the Apostles’ Creed was sometimes included in the office of Prône, which was a vernacular series of prayers—Our Father, Hail Mary, etc.—after the Gospel). Also, I’m not sure I would want to replace the congregational recitation of the Creed with the priest quizzing the assembly on their faith each week, which just seems kind of clerical.

      4. Deacon Fritz

        Though if there is clerical quizzing, I would be relieved if it were limited to the actual liturgical promises. I’ve certainly lived through imaginative riffs on the questions to which my sincere answer (hey, if the cleric is going for authenticity and sincerity, surely congregants get to do that, right?) was “Uh, not sure” or “Hmm, nope” or [internalized facepalm].

      5. Me: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, the creator of heaven and earth?
        Assembly: I do.
        Me: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucifed, died, and was buried; who rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty?
        Assembly: I do.
        Me: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the rsurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
        Assembly: I do.
        I look upon it is a dialogue. I extend my hands out at the end of each section to indicate it is time to answer.
        I get a louder response to the questions than I hear when people are reciting something out of a book or worship aid.
        I started doing this when CoVid hit and we were not allowed to use worship aids or “missalettes.” By the time we got to the credal profession of faith in the Son, the voices were down to a minimum. I continue it now, even though we are permitted to use worship aids/missalettes are permitted

        Same with the Gloria — I turned it into a simple refrain by the people — Glory to God in the highest, Glory to God in the highest — and I proclaimed the “verses,” similar to a responsorial psalm arrangement, with the people proclaiming the refrain after each verse. Again, more vocal participation than people trying to remember the words, which were usually sung by the choir.

    2. A traditionalist criticism I have seen against the reintroduction of the Prayer of the Faithful is that it is also a duplication of the intercessions already included in the Eucharistic Prayer.

      https://www.ccwatershed.org/2013/05/16/distracting-prayer-faithful/

      If one gets too hung up on Vatican II’s concern of “useless repetitions” (however one defines useless), we could rival the Old Low Masses in terms of time. If you drop the Creed /Universal Prayer as being included in the Eucharistic Prayer, the Kyrie/Gloria as a duplication of Introit/Entance Hymn, the Penitential Rite as duplicating the Our Father and “Lord, I am not worthy” prior to communion, then you got a bare bones liturgy.

      1. It has taken me a long time, nearly 60 years, to realise that the “useless repetitions” are the duplications eliminated by Inter oecumenici, so that the celebrant at Solemn Mass no longer had to say all the things he says at Low Mass which are sung or said by others. Beginning with the Introit; saying the Gloria before sitting down to wait for the choir to finish singing it; saying the Gospel before standing to listen to the Deacon sing it; …

  3. I have often argued against the liturgy as classroom (a particular issue in Anglicanism, but also elsewhere), and yet…the level of catechesis for the baptized has fallen to new depths in recent years – is the inclusion of the creed one of the last places to reiterate the fundamentals of what we profess at the heart of Christian faith?

  4. As long as western Christians add the “filioque” to the Nicene Creed we have an expression of disunity as much as unity. And as long as we continue to express the Holy Spirit at arm’s length and separate from the church whom we are, we will have inadequate catechesis and liturgical prayer. Let us find inspiration in our expressions of trust in the Trinity (belief in) from the apostles and evangelists.

    1. In 1996, the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity published a detailed paper on “The Greek and Latin Traditions Regarding the Procession of the Holy Spirit”.

      http://www.christianunity.va/content/unitacristiani/en/documenti/altri-testi.html

      It would be a brave man or woman who tried to summarise this paper, but the points that stand out are (1) that the Greek and Latin terms which in English are translated as “proceed” do not necessarily mean precisely the same thing; and (2) the fact the the West added filioque to the Creed in the context of the Arian heresy.

      The document wisely notes “how inadequate human language is to express the ineffable mystery of the Holy Trinity, one God, which is beyond our words and our thoughts”.

  5. I wonder how many parishes chant the Creed on Sunday. In my parish, where most of the Mass is chanted on Sunday, including the celebrant’s parts, we do not chant the Creed. When you think about it, it is odd to sing the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Mystery of Faith, Great Amen and Agnus Dei but not sing the Creed. Savannah’s weekly Antecedent Mass (former called Extraordinary), the Credo is always chanted as are all the parts of the Mass since in the Sung Mass it is required to do so. Chanting the Credo certainly changes the experience of it. Liturgically it is a hymn.

      1. I would suggest that it is closer to the marriage vows than the standard legal agreement. We don’t say “I believe that…” but rather I believe in….”

    1. Apparently in the Byzantine liturgy the Creed has always only been recited, one of the few things not sung.

      I’ve only experienced the Creed sung a handful of times (and I think all of those were in Latin), but I’d be willing to give it a try. I think it would certainly change our experience of it.

    2. Christopher Walker did a marvelous setting of the Apostle’s Creed as part of his Stella Maris Mass which I don’t believe was published, but he kindly allowed us to sing as part of a Sunday evening campus ministry Mass. We broke it out each Lent and Easter, it was very well sung by the assembly.

  6. When I was a pastor, I tried to restore the singing of the Creed on Sundays – in English, of course, but sung to the traditional melody familiar to my generation from when it was sung regularly in Latin. I liked it, but it was not very popular, and the effort was eventually abandoned. I suspect it is less the Creed itself than its length that may be the problem. Recited it adds a minute or more to Mass. Sung, it adds several more minutes.
    That said, I do applaud the Eastern rites for retaining the Creed at every Mass and the Anglicans for keeping the Apostles Creed at Morning prayer and Evensong (from which the Roman Rite dripped it in 1955).

  7. One of the minor rubrical changes in the Third Edition of the Roman Missal (Latin edition 2002), is that there is a greater flexibility in using the Apostles’ Creed. Although some of the different national editions of the Second Edition (I think the Italian and Spanish) allowed for the use of the Apostles’ Creed on any Sunday, Now the rubric says, ° Instead of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, especially during Lent and Easter Time, the baptismal Symbol of the Roman Church, known as the Apostles’ Creed, may be used.°

    On another level, my colleague John OKeeffe here at Maynooth composed a setting of the Creed that was used at the Mass with Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families in Irealnd in 2018, You can find it at this link at the 1,40,40 mark https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=k7cEcBxTUtw&feature=youtu.be

    1. It is permitted year-round in the US edition of the current Roman Missal, and almost recommended for Lent and Eastertide:

      19. Instead of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, especially during Lent and Easter Time, the baptismal Symbol of the Roman Church, known as the Apostles’ Creed, may be used.

      1. In my experience very few people, including clerics, know that in the US the Apostles creed may be used on all Sundays and wherever the praying/singing of the creed is required. It is simpler in its collection of creedal affirmations and avoids the use of expressions which, in English at least, are inelegant to say the least. “Born of the Virgin Mary” instead of “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
        and became man.” “One in being with the Father” instead of “consubstantial with the Father”. I love both forms of the creed but always use the apostles’ creed.

  8. In the Byzantine Rite, the Creed is preceded by an exhoration to love one another so as to properly profess the Creed. The exhortation is probably held over from when the congregational the kiss of peace that was lost from the Divine Liturgy. In that context, the Creed is seen as strengthening the bonds of fellowship prior to the Eucharistic Prayer.

    A few years back there was talk of moving the rite of peace in Roman Rite to before the offretory. In that context, the Creed could be seen as a way to strengthen both the vertical fellowship with God (the loyalty oath) and the horizontal fellowship within the local congregation and with the wider Church.

    Perhaps this is how it was originally interpreted when it was first introduced in Spain in the sixth century prior to communion.

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