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The Creed is the faith that we confess at every Mass, and it is therefore a summary of what we believe, the truths we hold as such – truths. These truths not only identify what we believe in, but also who we are. They form our Catholic identity.
On the road towards the Year Of Faith, I want to take a look at the Nicene Creed, line by line, to see what it tells us about the truth of being Catholic Christians.
born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light,true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.
We continue to profess the identity of Christ, and more specifically, His relationship with God the Father. The first line in this section once again repeats that the Son came forth from the Father alone, as we found out in the last post in this series. The following lines seem to want to emphasise that, and in doing so they also underline that the Son is God, just like the Father. Both are divine persons of one being. There are no levels of Godhood, the one is not more or less God than the other. God from God, even true God from true God.
The Creed also presents us with a handy simile: The reflection of the sun on water is no less light than the sunlight directly hitting our eye. Christ is no less God than the Father. They are both God, just as the reflected light and the direct sunlight are both light. The comparison doesn’t completely fly, but it’s a handy enough introductory one.
Christ came forth, was begotten, from the Father. He is pertinently not part of Creation, although He did dwell fully in it. God the Father did not create His Son like He created Adam. This indicates a difference, a hierarchy. By His entire being, Christ is of another level than us men. It’s hard to imagine otherwise, since we already know that God exists outside of Creation, and since Christ is God…
Considered a difficult word by some, ‘consubstantial’ offers a glimpse of the Father-Son relationship within the Trinity (of which we’ll encounter the third person later). A literal translation of this word, which is derived from Latin consubstantialis, would be ‘of the same substance’. In this case ‘substance’ indicates matter but also being, and that is the important element here. God the Father and God the Son are distinct beings, but they are of one being, one substance.
This is not the place to delve in the doctrine of the Trinity, so let’s leave it at this. We confess that Jesus is God, in no way less so than God the Father, and He is forever (“before all ages”) begotten of the Father.
Photo credit: Kitty Goeman
They may conjure up images of medieval witch trials and whatnot, but heresies are really nothing to get into a fuzz about. Well, the specific heresies may be, but the fact that the Church calls certain beliefs and opinion heretical should not. A heresy is nothing more complicated than a teaching that undermines the faith in a grave enough manner that supporting, promoting or following it has a serious penalty as a consequence. And that because such a heresy endangers the souls of the faithful.
One such heresy that I came across today* has several names, but most people who know it, will know it as modalism or Sabellianism. A short definition would be that modalism holds that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are merely three ways, or modes, in which God has revealed Himself to people.
Why is this a heresy? Why can’t the Father, Son and Holy Spirit not be three forms in which God interacts with us? Well, for starters, it would make His own existence, as we have come to know it, a fake. Countless times do we read in the Gospels how Jesus prays to His Father. If both were just roles played by the one God, why would He do that? In the Prologue of the Gospel of John we read that the Word was God and was with God. The Word of God is Jesus, the Son, but why, if the Son and the Father are the same, would John tell us that the one was with the other? In Genesis, we read about the spirit of God hovering over the deep. Not God, but His Spirit. Why would God play a role before an empty deep?
There is one God in three Persons. These three Persons are not the same. They are separate and unique, but they are all equally God. This is a mystery of our faith, which means that it is something that goes beyond our understanding. It is good that some things are beyond our ken, because God is not limited to the understanding of his creatures. If He were, He would be limited. A two-dimensional creature has no way of understanding three or even four dimensions. We have no way of understanding or even imagining the five, six or more dimension that scientists say exist. And we have no way of grasping the Trinity, but that has no bearing on its reality.
Is the Trinity unlikely? Perhaps. But it is what God has taught us, through Jesus’ prayers, and through the work of the Holy Spirit.
In articles 253 to 255, the Catechism of the Catholic Church delves into the Trinity. It has this to say [emphasis mine, notes removed for ease of reading]:
253 The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the “consubstantial Trinity”. The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.” In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.”
254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. “God is one but not solitary.” “Father”, “Son”, “Holy Spirit” are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: “He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.” They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: “It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.” The divine Unity is Triune.
255 The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: “In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both. While they are called three persons in view of their relations, we believe in one nature or substance.” Indeed “everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship.” “Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son.”
But who’s to say that what the Church teaches through the Catechism is right? That belief, that trust in the dogmatic teachings of the Church flows directly from th words of Jesus and the belief in the Holy Spirit who guides us. If we express faith in His words to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and in the Holy Spirit of Pentecost, we must als have faith in the Church that Christ established upon Peter, and the faith that she safeguards and communicates.
God is Triune: one Being in three Persons. This we know through Scripture, the Word of God, and the teachings of the Church of Christ. To say otherwise is a denial of God as He is. God does not pretend. He is who He says He is. He is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are all true Persons, not phantasms or roles He plays before us. Because He takes us seriously, He reveals Himself to us as He is.
*The source linked to above is a Dutch text, a reflection given by lay Dominican Leo de Jong on Trinity Sunday, at the nominally Catholic church ‘Het Steiger’ in Rotterdam. In this reflection, Mr. de Jong denounces our understanding of the Trinity as three separate divine Persons as nonsense. Instead, he says, these persons are three forms in which Gods allows Himself to be known. This misleading teaching, presented as profound knowledge, is in reality a centuries-old heresy.
For a further Biblical explanation of the Trinity, go here.
Art credit:  Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1737-1738.
Over the past week or so, I have come across a number of instances in which the faith of the average churchgoing people is put in opposition to the rules or dogmas which are handed down from Rome. Some examples:
- The ongoing dispute between the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch and the parish of San Salvator (they have now claimed to be expecting a break with the diocese, looking for alternative locations to continue their ‘services’, and they will bar Auxiliary Bishop Mutsaerts from entering the church through passive resistance (although he is invited to attend one of their priestless Masses – what Masses?!)).
- An announcement of the Mariënburg-old-codgers’-club-of-’critical’-Catholics’ upcoming annual symposium centered around the question of what they still believe (judging from the words of chairman Erik Jurgens, who said he doesn’t need to believe in the Trinity or take the Creed seriously to be a good Catholic, they don’t believe in anything much).
- Retweets by the Dutch Dominicans of an article by a one of their own warning us against believing that Christ is, in fact, God.
- And, lastly, an assurance from theological publishers’ Berne Heeswijk that one of their new publication “will not be going the way of dogma, but the way of the faithful”.
Just some examples, but indicative of a trend that, although often not very visible, is still well alive. To me, the division between the faithful on the one hand and dogma on the other is an artificial separation, which is potentially very dangerous. It’s not as if these are not related or connected in any way.They are, and we need both.
Faith is our answer to God. As the Catechism tells us: “Faith is man’s response to God, who reveals himself and gives himself to man, at the same time bringing man a superabundant light as he searches for the ultimate meaning of his life” . God takes the first step, we respond. The faith is our response to God’s active revelation and gift. Since it comes from God, this gift is perfect, but our faith is not automatically perfect: it is, after all, our response, and we are merely human. Were our response perfect, the relation between God and us may have been something like that between a programmer and a computer: the programmer inputs something and the outcome of his input is perfect and predictable. We’d be mindless automatons when it came to faith. But we are not. God created us with free will, we are free to act and to choose in all we do, including our quest for God or our denial of Him.
A consequence of that free will is that we have to be active partners in our relationship with God, in our faith. God helps us, but we need to do some of the work ourselves as well. Otherwise, again, we’d be left without choice and freedom. God offers his assistance in that through the Church he founded (Matthew 16:18-19). In the Church we find the means to develop our faith, to allow it to grow.
In the Gospel of John we read the Parable of the Vine (15-1-11). Jesus tells us there: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a branch — and withers; these branches are collected and thrown on the fire and are burnt” And later: “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”
Jesus asks us to remain in Him, to keep His commandments and His teachings, lest we be thrown away and come to nothing. Now, Jesus’ teaching includes some very clear dogmas, so to speak: He is God, there are various things we need to do and understand to be able to follow Him. In other words, there are certain rules we need to follow. Just like the sabbath was made for us, and not we for the sabbath (Mark 2:27), the rules are there for us, not we for the rules. They allow us to grow in faith, to reach our full potential. The rules are also educational: they teach us about God and His identity, and likewise about ourselves, through the things we say do and believe.
What’s the consequence of we do not follow the rules that Christ gave us, and which were later given to us by the Church with the authority given to her by Christ? We need only to look at San Salvator, Mariënburg, the Dutch Dominicans, Berne Heeswijk… and so many others. Places were faith is a matter of mere feelings and nice thoughts. We will wither and come to nothing.
There is no opposition between the dogmas and the faith of the common man, so to speak. The former helps the latter achieve his full potential, which does require a conscious effort and desire to achieve in us.
An interesting related question to this whole matter is what comes first: our conscience or the teachings of the Church? Father Juan R. Vélez offers an interesting article about that very question, offering answers based on the teaching of Blessed John Henry Newman. The article is also available in Dutch.
Almost one month ago, Pope Benedict XVI undertook a one-day papal visit that was both national (ie. within Italy) and international. I haven’t been able to devote much attention to it until now, but for the sake of completeness I want to do so now.
The Diocese of San Marino-Mentefeltro encompasses parts of two countries in the area southwest of Italy’s Po valley. Firstly, of course, Italy (parts of the region Emilia-Romagna) and secondly, the tiny and ancient Republic of San Marino. The latter nation being small enough and economically tied into the culture and economy of surrounding Italy to such an extent that it warrants being part of one ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The 61,000 Catholics of the diocese, led by Bishop Luigi Negri, hosted the papal entourage on 19 June, in San Marino and at the episcopal residence in Pennabilli.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke on four occasions, the texts of which may be read in full here. Below follow my usual papal soundbytes.
On the Trinity and love:
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one because God is love and love is an absolute life-giving force; the unity created by love is a unity greater than a purely physical unity. The Father gives everything to the Son; the Son receives everything from the Father with gratitude; and the Holy Spirit is the fruit of this mutual love of the Father and the Son. The texts of today’s Mass speak of God and thus speak of love; they do not dwell so much on the three Persons, but rather on love which is the substance and, at the same time, the unity and trinity (Eucharistic Concelebration, Olympic stadium of Serravalle, San Marino).
The Face of God
Moses [...] asked God to reveal himself, to allow him to see his face. However, God did not show his face, but rather revealed his being, full of goodness, with these words: “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). This is the Face of God. This self-definition of God expresses his merciful love: a love that triumphs over sin, covers it, eliminates it. We can always be sure of this goodness which does not abandon us. There can be no clearer revelation. We have a God who refuses to destroy sinners and wants to show his love in an even more profound and surprising way to sinners themselves, in order to always offer them the possibility of conversion and forgiveness (idem).
The Trinity present on the Cross
[I]n the mystery of the cross, the three divine Persons are present: the Father, who gives his Only-Begotten Son for the salvation of the world; the Son, who totally fulfils the Father’s plan; the Holy Spirit — poured out by Jesus at the moment of his death — who comes to make us participants in divine life, to transform our existence so that it may be enlivened by divine love (idem).
[W]e know well that in the present context the family institution is being called into question, as if in the attempt to ignore its inalienable value. Those that suffer the consequences are the weakest social categories, especially the young generations that are more vulnerable and so more easily exposed to disorientation, situations of self-marginalization and the slavery of dependence. It is sometimes difficult for educational institutes to provide youth with adequate responses and when family support is lacking they often find natural insertion into the social fabric difficult. For this reason too it is important to recognize that the family, as God made it, is the milieu that best encourages harmonious growth and helps free and responsible individuals to develop, trained in the deep and enduring values (Meeting with members of Government, Congress and the Diplomatic Corps, Hall of the Great and General Council of the Public Palace, San Marino).
The important questions
The important questions we bear within us remain, they always resurface. Who are we? Where do we come from? Who do we live for? These questions are the highest sign of the transcendence of the human being and of our innate capacity not to stop at appearances. And it is precisely by looking at ourselves with truth, sincerity and courage that we understand the beauty, and also the precariousness of life and feel a dissatisfaction, a restlessness, that nothing material can assuage. In the end all promises often prove inadequate (Meeting with the young people of San Marino-Montefeltro, Pennabili).
The human experience
Dear young people, the human experience is a reality that we share, but it may be given various degrees of meaning. And it is here that is decided the way to direct one’s life, and here that one chooses to whom to entrust it, to whom to entrust oneself. The risk is always that of remaining confined to the world of things, of the immediate, the relative, the useful, of losing sensitivity to all that refers to our spiritual dimension. It is by no means a question of contempt for the use of reason or of rejecting scientific progress, far from it. Rather, it is a matter of understanding that each one of us is not only made in a “horizontal” dimension but also has a “vertical” dimension. Scientific data and technological instruments cannot replace the world of life, the horizons of meaning and freedom, of the richness of relations of friendship and love (idem).
The Lord goes with you!
Do not be afraid to face difficult situations, moments of crisis, the trials of life, for the Lord goes with you, he is with you! I encourage you to grow in friendship with him through frequent reading of the Bible and of the whole of Sacred Scripture, through faithful participation in the Eucharist as a personal encounter with Christ, through commitment within the ecclesial community, journeying on with a good spiritual director (idem).
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