The Creed is tied to our identity as Christians.
Tim O’Malley

I’m not asked on a Sunday morning, ‘As of 9:20, what do you believe?’
Jaroslav Pelikan

Do you still rely on cheat sheets at Mass? I do. When the revised English translation of the liturgy was introduced in 2011, we all relied on those handy reference cards in the pews, but I still keep one handy. Most of the new parts I’ve got down solid – like the three versions of the Memorial Acclamation, for instance, and our contribution to the dialogue before the preface (“It is right and just”). Admittedly, force of habit made it tough to switch to “with your spirit” from “also with you,” but everybody got used to it quick enough. The Gloria continues to gives me trouble when recited, although singing it is a breeze.

But the Creed? Forget it. Like putting your brain on automatic when you drive to work or the grocery store, I slip into the old translation of the Nicene Creed which I memorized when I went through RCIA. Little kids around me, including my own grade-schoolers, rattle it off without a hitch. Meanwhile, I’m fumbling with the hymnal or missalette to locate the text. It’s terribly embarrassing, but I take comfort in noting that I’m not the only one: The priests up in the sanctuary frequently refer to a Creed text just like I do – usually the older guys who, like me, had been reciting the previous English translation for decades.

Of course, unlike the priests, I have a choice out in the pew: I could, theoretically, simply slop my way through the Creed and rely on the young’uns around me to cover my lacunae. Nobody would notice (except my alert family), and it certainly wouldn’t affect the progress of the liturgy. Besides, I’d more than make up for my creedal mumblings with crisp responses as required by the rubrics and full-throated hymn-singing.

Nonetheless, I can’t scrimp on the Creed – rather, I won’t. It’s the equivalent of an asthmatic checking for his recue inhaler before a hike, or somebody allergic to bee stings checking for his epi pen before heading into the woods.

The Creed is a spiritual life vest for me, and I have to get it right. Every time.

That’s why I worked hard to memorize the Nicene Creed prior to my reception into the Church. For me, it was an essential element in my new Catholic identity – something that, along with the Mass and Mary, clearly differentiated my future from my Protestant past. Having been raised an evangelical, my rule of faith had been the Bible, only the Bible, and nothing but the Bible. My childhood Presbyterian Church certainly had a Calvinist bias, and there was a denominational statement of faith that I must’ve embraced before high school confirmation. Yet it wasn’t emphasized such that I’d commit it to memory. Statements of faith and doctrinal instruction were simply not imperative in my evangelical experience.

Instead, our practical understanding of the faith relied on a patchwork of Bible verses and implicit explanatory filters. Thus, in a sense, our doctrinal mosaic was subject to change from day to day, Sunday sermon to Sunday sermon, popular devotional writer to…well, you get the idea. It was as if our grasp of Christian truth was not fixed but free-floating, and dependent on the Biblical pericope du jour along with its immediate interpretation. There was little in the way of systematic theological formation; dogma, as I recall, was a dirty word.

Then I lost my faith – or else I had little faith left by the time I graduated college with my religion degree. The “Bible alone” framework I’d grown up with couldn’t withstand scrutiny, especially when it was evident that there was little sola Scriptura consensus in the evangelical diaspora. Nonetheless, while my traditional biblical beliefs ebbed, I retained an intense admiration for Jesus, and I was desperate to hold onto the three-dimensional Son of Man I’d encountered in the Gospels.

But how?

My original plan had been to go to seminary after college, but instead I landed in Eugene, Oregon, where I worked in a small bookstore and spent my weekends going to churches – all kinds of churches, from Episcopal to Quaker, and everything in between. I also read a lot, and somehow I squirmed my way into a local ecumenical reading group.

One month our selection was Luther’s Small Catechism. Here was the primordial Reformer – the originator of sola Scriptura – and he was sketching out a basic outline of Christian truths that wasn’t simply a string of Bible verses. That was revelatory in itself, but it was his simple recommendation with regards to daily devotions that saved my faith: “In the morning,” he writes, “as soon as you get out of bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say: ‘God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.’ Then, kneeling or standing, say the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer.”

So, that’s what I did for months, and that’s all I did: The sign of the cross, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Those three things truly were spiritual life support for me; my faith was reduced almost entirely to a sacramental gesture followed by rote recitation of a statement of faith and a biblical prayer.

But it was enough – and it was plenty.

“The Creeds,” writes Frank Sheed, “give us a kind of blueprint of our Redemption,” and when I was scrambling to rebuild a scaffolding of faith, it was vital to keep that blueprint close at hand. Eventually, through grace and Providence, I scrambled my way into the Church, and my reliance shifted from the Apostle’s Creed to the Nicene Creed. I clung to this more substantive compendium’s cadences and propositions with an equal, if not greater, ferocity – particularly since there were few reliable alternatives at that time. It was the mid-1980s, an especially uproarious catechetical moment in the U.S. Church: just prior to the Catechism’s appearance and before the leavening effect of John Paul II’s episcopal appointments on post-conciliar experimentation. Consequently, the translation of the Creed that I burned into my mind and heart during that season of spiritual and ecclesial turbulence became inexorably bound up with my conversion, and I’ve been loath to let it go.

Yet, let it go I must – and I’m working on it, week after week. On the plus side, I’ve experienced a rejuvenated gratitude and passion for the Creed, and I’m reciting it these days with renewed vigor. As Dorothy Sayers puts it, the Creed summarizes “the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man,” but even its most devoted students can easily fall prey to the deadening effects of repeated recitation from memory. The new translation is not only a more faithful rendering of the ancient texts, but it wakes us up to the Creed’s (and our Faith’s) startling assertions.

Moreover, there are a few key changes in the new translation that I find especially edifying. Here they are:

  1. From “We believe” to “I believe.” As an evangelical, I believed salvation was about me and Jesus. Belonging to a church was an afterthought and optional. Becoming a Catholic introduced me to a corporate vision of salvation – that we’re saved as the Body of Christ, the Church, and that we’re individually inserted into that Body by means of sacraments and faith. Consequently, the “we believe” of the Creed that I memorized as a new Catholic was instructive and helpful. The restoration of the more precise rendering of the Latin credo (“I believe”) highlights the twofold movement of conversion: that it entails both a personal response and a corporate engrafting (CCC 166).
  2. From “born of” to “incarnate of” the Virgin Mary. Like most evangelicals, I only thought of Mary at Christmastime – as if she was a minor character in the salvific spectacle, and not its human hinge. Although “born of the Virgin Mary” certainly captures the Theotokos implications that were so startling to my evangelical sensibilities, the word “incarnate” ratifies Mary’s singular role in language more stark and disarming. She is the lynchpin of the incarnation, and although God could’ve chosen to bring about our redemption without her, he didn’t (CCC 502).
  3. From “look for” to “look forward to” the Resurrection of the dead. The resurrection of the body is not an easy concept for any Christian, Catholic or Protestant. It’s the kind of thing that we more readily envision happening to others in some vague, futuristic sense (“look for”), rather than something that applies to us (“look forward to”). The inclusion of this foundational biblical truth and principle of Christian anthropology in the Creed puts us on notice that the bodily resurrection is our destiny, it’s my personal trajectory. It’s a straightforward reminder that God is interested in saving our souls and our bodies, and that it behooves us to begin living our lives accordingly this side of heaven – treating our bodily selves with the same eternal outlook that we so readily apply to our spiritual selves (CCC 1004).

There’s one phrase in the new translation of the Creed that, thankfully, was not altered: “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic” – the Four Marks of the Church. This short clause, more than any other in the Creed, was instrumental in my conversion, for it constituted a bridge from my amorphous ideas of “a” church to a more rational desire for “the” Church. It’s the core of my creedal lifeline, a bulwark against doubt and despair in these crazy times. The Four Marks “are the outward showings of inner realities,” Sheed insists. “Christ made His Church thus, it can never be otherwise.” And when I bark out those Four Marks at Mass, I can’t help but think of the St. Peter’s confession, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6. 68).

Yes. Amen. I believe. No cheat sheet required.