By DON FIER
Over the past three weeks of this series on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), we have been reflectively examining the characteristics of the indescribably wonderful gift of faith that Almighty God has so generously availed mankind.
As so adeptly summarized in the Compendium of the CCC, we know that faith is “the supernatural virtue which is necessary for salvation. It is a free gift of God and is accessible to all who humbly seek it. The act of faith is a human act, that is, an act of the intellect of a person — prompted by the will moved by God — who freely assents to divine truth. Faith is also certain because it is founded on the Word of God; it works ‘through charity’ (Gal. 5:6); and it continually grows through listening to the Word of God and through prayer. It is, even now, a foretaste of the joys of Heaven” (n. 28).
Clearly, then, “faith is a personal act — the free response of the human person to the initiative of God Who reveals Himself” (CCC, n. 166). At the same time, however, how true is an insightful spiritual maxim that I’ve often heard preached: You don’t get to Heaven on your own — either you bring others with you or risk not making it yourself. Just as we have not given ourselves life, we have not given ourselves faith; just as others have formed us in faith, it is our duty to hand that precious gift on to others. If we are authentically living out the twofold Gospel message of love for God and love for neighbor, we cannot help but speak to others about our faith.
As the Catechism so succinctly puts it, “each believer is…a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith” (CCC, n. 166).
Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, describes the societal character of faith as follows: “Faith is a social virtue because every believer has received his faith from other believers. Moreover, we have the duty to share our faith with others. Finally, our faith supports the faith of others, even as their faith sustains us in our believing in the Word of God” (The Faith, p. 38).
Put another way, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, all believers are called to support one another in building up the Church by assisting each other in learning, living, and spreading the faith. Is not this a key element of the New Evangelization as called for by Blessed John Paul II and embraced by Pope Benedict XVI?
The text of the Catechism sets before us, in side-by-side fashion, two Creeds of the Church by which we profess our faith personally and publicly, the Apostles’ Creed and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (or Nicene Creed), respectively.
The Apostles’ Creed, the prayer with which we begin the rosary, is “the faith of the Church professed personally by each believer, principally during Baptism” (CCC, n. 167). On the other hand, the Nicene Creed, which the congregation prays in community immediately after the Liturgy of the Word at each Sunday Mass, is “the faith of the Church confessed by the bishops assembled in council or more generally by the liturgical assembly of believers” (CCC, n. 167). A careful examination of these two forms of the Creed reveals that they profess one and the same faith of the Catholic Church, the Apostles’ Creed in more brief form.
When making our profession of faith at Holy Mass, we all simultaneously say, “I believe . . . ” As Christoph Cardinal Schönborn points out in Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Here, each one speaks for himself personally, since believing is a quite personal act. Nevertheless, what we express in the Creed is not our ‘private’ ideas but something shared by all of us in the Faith. We could also say, ‘We believe . . . ,’ as is done in the Greek version of the ‘major’ profession of faith” (p. 31). He goes on to say that “the expression ‘I believe…’ refers in the first instance to the ‘I’ of the Church. I, as an individual, can join in saying the ‘I believe…’ only within the communion of the Church” (ibid., p. 32).
Hence, as the Catechism tells us: “It is the Church that believes first, and so bears, nourishes, and sustains my faith. . . . It is through the Church that we receive faith and new life in Christ by Baptism” (CCC, n. 168).
The Catechism goes on to tell us that “salvation comes from God alone; but because we receive the life of faith through the Church, she is our mother…[and] because she is our mother, she is also our teacher in the Faith” (CCC, n. 169).
How can this be? Just as our mother in the natural order carries us in her womb and gives us physical life, nourishes and cares for us, and teaches us about life, so too, it is the Church who gives us spiritual life through the saving waters of Baptism, who sustains, nourishes, and strengthens us through the other sacraments, and who is constant and vigilant in safeguarding, defending, and teaching the faith for all generations.
“Our salvation comes through the Church,” says Fr. Hardon, “because she nourishes and sustains our faith through her teaching, her sacraments, and her treasury of merit as the Mystical Body of Christ” (The Faith, p. 97).
The third-century bishop and martyr St. Cyprian of Carthage powerfully puts it this way in his treatise De Unitate: “No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (chapter 6).
What we profess in words, then, whether personally in the Apostles’ Creed or communally in the Nicene Creed, are formulations which permit us to express and hand on what we believe in faith. However, it is critically important to realize and take to heart that “we do not believe in formulas, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch” (CCC, n. 170). St. Thomas Aquinas expresses this fundamental principle as follows: “The act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition, but in a thing. For as in science we do not form propositions, except in order to have knowledge about things through their means, so is it in faith” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 1, art. 2, ad 2).
In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul states with great clarity that there is one, unchanging body of truth that the Church faithfully defends and proclaims throughout the ages: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, Who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Indeed, the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). “She guards the memory of Christ’s words; it is she who from generation to generation hands on the Apostles’ confession of faith” (CCC, n. 171).
St. Irenaeus, a second-century Early Church Father, touched on this very topic in his famous work Adversus Haereses that he wrote in defense of the early Church against the heresy of Gnosticism. Says St. Irenaeus:
“The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the Apostles and their disciples this faith….As if occupying but one house, [she] carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same” (book I, chapter 10, nn. 1-2).
Historically speaking, St. Irenaeus was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. So, most assuredly, it is beyond question that this unwavering doctrine of the Church dates back to apostolic times.
Next week, we’ll begin an article-by-article journey through the profession of the Christian faith as expressed in the Creed.
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)