Can the Pastor Change the Creed?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Father William Saunders

"I am very concerned about something that is happening in my parish. During the recitation of the Creed, the priest and congregation change the words. Where it says, "For us men and for our salvation..." the word "men" is being omitted. Also, at least one person in the congregation loudly proclaims that "He was born of the Virgin Mary and became one of us." This is not right. There are reasons why the Creed was formulated the way it is. Can you explain why it is sufficient the way it was written, the significance of the above passages as they were written, and what, if anything, can be done to express opposition to this practice?"

One of the most beautiful characteristics of the Roman Catholic Church is the unity of the faithful in worship. A Catholic ought to be able to go anywhere in the world and attend Mass without wondering, "Am I in the right place? Is this Catholic?" Yes, language differences may exist and there may be some particular cultural customs; nevertheless, Mass ought to be Mass.

For this reason, during the time of liturgical renewal, the Holy See issued the "Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery" (1967) mandating, "In the celebration of the Eucharist above all, no one, not even a priest, may on his own authority add, omit, or change anything in the liturgy. Only the supreme authority of the Church, and according to the provisions of the law, the bishop and Episcopal Conferences, may do this. Priests should, therefore, ensure that they so preside over the celebration of the Eucharist that the faithful know that they are attending not a rite established on private initiative, but the Church's public worship, the regulation of which was entrusted by Christ to the apostles and their successors" (No. 45).

Given this basis, no individual has the right to act like some liturgical cavalier and tamper with the words of the Creed. Moreover, never should a pastor or liturgy committee with his approval introduce any revision to the Mass. Granted, some people these days have hang-ups over the words "men" and "man." Only the dear Lord can explain to us why "He" became a "man."

Only a linguistics expert can tell us why in standard English the words "men" or even "mankind" have been used to demote men and women, where other languages often have separate words, like Latin's "vir" meaning "a man" and "homo" meaning "human being" or "mankind." On the lighter side, I guess this is why some people also use the word "song" instead of "hymn," or "I believe" instead of "A-men."

However, by rewording the Creed, a person or a congregation breaks the unity of the Mass. If a legitimate concern exists over the English translation of the Creed, then the Bishops' Conference should be approached. However, it is the duty of the local bishop to insure that liturgical laws are followed and the integrity of the Mass is preserved (cf. Canons 837-9).

From a more academic approach, to change the words of the Creed shows a genuine ignorance of the history that undergirds it. The Creed clearly refuted two heresies which plagued the early Church community: Docetism and Arianism. Both heresies attacked the mystery of the Incarnation.

Docetism (a relative of Gnosticism) arose in the early 200s and denied the material, physical reality of Christ's body. Docetists held that the Father created the Son, who was spiritual but not truly divine, and who only had a physical appearance. Docetism essentially denied our Lord's humanity. Moreover, Gnostics did not believe that our Lord dies to save all, only those to whom a special knowledge was given. Sts. Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus and Polycarp vigorously defended our Lord's Incarnation and the belief that Christ came to save all who would believe.

On the other hand, Arianism, named for Arius, a priest of the Church in Alexandria in the early 300s, denied that Jesus, the Son, was equal and consubstantial to the Father. Rather, Arius posited that the Father had created Jesus in time, essentially denying our Lord's divinity. Like their predecessors, Sts. Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory Nyssa vigorously defended the faith, sometimes suffering severe persecution for doing so.

In response, the Council of Nicea (325), followed by he Council of Constantinople I (381), issued the Creed we recite to this day at Mass. The phrases "one in being with the Father," "For us men and for our salvation," and "became man" represent key truths of our faith, truths for which saints suffered. To simply play with the words or discard them because they might not be "politically correct" or in accord with one's personal agenda reveals ignorance and pride.

In the "General Instruction on the Roman Missal" (1970) we are reminded that "the purpose of the Profession of Faith (or Creed) is to express the assent and response of the people to the Scripture readings and homily they have just heard, and to recall to them the main truths of the faith, before they begin to celebrate the Eucharist" (No. 43). When we as individuals or congregations manipulate the Mass on whim we hinder the communion professed in the Creed and nourished in the Holy Eucharist.

Fr. Saunders is associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish and president of the Notre Dame Institute, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the August 18, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377- 0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.