You know the Nicene Creed, right? That’s the prayer that Catholics recite at Mass every Sunday. Its official name is the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, for the two major church councils that put it together. You know: “I believe in one God, / the Father almighty, / maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible . . .”—and you can probably finish the rest just fine, I’m sure.
Probably—but if not, challenge yourself to memorize it, because the creed is the essential summary of the Catholic faith; Christians have been reciting it since about 381. The very word comes from the Latin credo, “I believe.”
Now, if you already can rattle off the creed like Stephen Colbert on Red Bull, don’t get too smug, because the next question is: Do you know what you are saying you believe? And do you really believe it?
Before the creed was formulated, rival Christian groups got into such heated arguments about the exact nature of the Christian faith that real violence wasn’t out of the question (which wasn’t very Christian of them, ironically enough). Alarmed, the Roman emperor intervened by urging the bishops to gather in the city of Nicea to sort things out. The statement that resulted from nearly a month of discussion and debate summarized what the participants believed to be authentic Christian faith.
Why all the fuss over a bunch of words? Maybe because what we believe is real influences how we act—and, ultimately, who we are. Those who really believe what they say when they recite the Christian creed are going to act very differently from those who believe in the prevailing “creed” of the modern world. It turns out that the creed is no less controversial today than it was at the time of the council.
If you want to take this bucket list challenge all the way (and get bonus points!), then try this:
- Reflect. Over the coming weeks, reflect on the meaning of the creed, one line at a time, and record your thoughts in your prayer journal (another bucket list possibility—see the related article).
- Investigate. Investigate what the words really mean; you might discuss their meaning with a trusted mentor, or read up on the creed. Good resources include “Not Just Lip Service: Reciting the Creed,” by Father Robert Barron (available at USCatholic.org) and The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters by Luke Timothy Johnson (Image, 2007—and admittedly heavy reading; find a PowerPoint breakdown of the book here).
- Act. After your investigation, record in your prayer journal a revised reflection of what you mean when you say that line of the creed—and how it might influence your life.
Points for memorizing the creed: 100
Points for reflecting on the creed: 250
The Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity. . . . Christians who say these words should know what they are doing when they say them, and what they are saying when they mean them.
—Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters