The translation of the Nicene Creed used at Sunday Mass beginning in Advent will read, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty” — not, as currently, “We believe in God.” Often I say Mass using the Latin Novus Ordo. This is the text that was supposed to be translated into English. The Latin Creed begins Credo, namely, “I believe.” In French, Spanish, and German, the translation is uniformly, “I believe.” The Tridentine Mass is also Credo – I believe. I have seen a reference to the translation in the Armenian rite, where it is, “We believe.”
In the Denziger collection of Church documents, however, all the ancient creeds, except the Apostles’ Creed, begin, following the Greek, in the first-person plural: Credimus – “we believe.” From its earliest appearance in the Church, the “I believe” version is for liturgical use. Those present affirm their own personal belief.
Why the English translation currently in use from the 1960s changed to “we believe” is open to speculation. Obviously, if it was good enough at Nicea, it ought to be good enough in Kansas City. When the Church Fathers at Nicea and Constantinople said “we believe” or “we affirm,” however, they were speaking definitively in the name of the tradition. They affirmed authoritatively what the Church held, what is to be believed as true. At Mass, the individual parishioner is not so speaking with authority. He is articulating his personal acceptance and knowledge of what is held. He is not defining it, but he does understand it.
In the Byzantine rite, I read that, when a male public figure is present, he may, at the proper moment in the Liturgy, be invited to read (or perhaps chant) the Creed in the name of the community. This tradition was said to go back to the early Byzantine emperors, who recited the Creed in the name of the whole world under their jurisdiction. The classic emperor had a universal scope.
We probably would not want our president, whatever his ambitions, or the German chancellor, or the British queen to do the reciting in our name, though we hope that they might be able to affirm it in their own name. We are all “democrats” now. But it is a good example of the delicate relation of politics and faith, especially when believers and citizens hold the same truths. Christian emperors expected their subjects to be, well, Christians — or Arians, or Nestorians, or whatever the emperors were.
The problem with the formula “we believe” is that the one who recites it may not in fact be affirming what is in the Creed. Instead of saying “I believe” as a public expression of what he holds, he means rather, “We believe” — that is, this is what this organization holds, though not necessarily what I hold myself. The unity of belief is broken.
Presence at Mass indicates that one knows what is going on, knows what it means. Public recitation of the Creed indicates the unity of belief in the one teaching or central understanding of what it is about. This is the highest form of corporate affirmation. Each knows what the other believes.
A creed is a symbol, a key that works, that puts things together with the most possible delicacy. It wants to include everything essential, but not necessarily everything that might be said. Moreover, every word of the Creed is hammered out in controversy. Every word has a counter-view behind it that would, if followed, make the Faith something else.
Some Protestant communions do not recite the Creed because it is not in Scripture. What they mean is that it is not verbatim in Scripture. The Creed is nothing but an authoritative summation of what is in Scripture, now stated in the clearest and most sparing words by the Church, in whose hands Christ left these things, including Scripture’s integrity.
A certain rhythm or resonance is found in the words of the Creed. Liturgical chanting or singing of the Creed can be haunting; many great composers have set it to music. Yet the Creed is not a poem. It is word directed to mind. Its recitation is not to be omitted on Sundays and holy days. Whenever I am at a Sunday Mass at which the celebrant skips the Creed, I feel the loss. The congregation knows that something was bypassed that should be there. It also knows that it misses that point of the liturgy where the Church takes the mind of each most seriously. It explains the truth to us. It is the moment of our intelligence.
Each of the subsequent articles of the Creed enlightens us, reminds us, and teaches us exactly what it is, in briefest terms, that we know about ultimate things. To these truths we each respond: “Credo. I believe.”