I penned this for the Catholic Herald, the UK’s best Catholic weekly.
The mighty foe of Arians, St Athanasius of Alexandria (d 373), Bishop and Doctor of the Church, is celebrated on 2 May in both the newer and the traditional Roman calendars. In his struggles to defend Catholic Truth, Athanasius took on gangs of heretics, bishops and emperors. For his efforts he was rewarded with exile five times.
Confusion reigns in many spheres of the Church right now about what the Church truly holds to be true about faith and morals. Some well-placed pundits ignore the fact of the Church’s perennial interpretations and now imply that we can’t know for sure what the Lord taught. Others respond that the doctrinal and practical controversies of these our own days bear a strong resemblance to the era when Holy Church was torn asunder by Arian heresy.
When controversies arose in the past, the Church issued Creeds, dense bullet points, which we could recite and, thereby, avoid error and maintain unity. We all know the common Creeds, such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed recited at Mass. But there are other Creeds. For example, in 1968 Paul VI issued the comprehensive, non-liturgical “Credo of the People of God”.
Speaking of Athanasius, we also have the magnificent “Athanasian” Creed (Symbolon Quicumque), commonly attributed to the saintly doctor. A mediaeval legend holds that Athanasius, during one of his exiles, gave the text to Pope Julius I. J.N.D. Kelly, who wrote a book on this Creed, (USA HERE – UK HERE) suggests that St Vincent of Lérin (d c 435) might have been the author. Authorship aside, it contains precise Trinitarian and Christological statements and ends with the less-than-ambiguous: “This is the Catholic Faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.”
The “Athanasian Creed”, against Arianism, Sabellianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism, could be a wonderful starting point for study, prayer and meditation.
Our classical Creeds are for the head what our good works are for the heart. We recite the basics of the Faith in which we believe (fides quae creditur) so that we, and others, can know who we are. The Creeds are rehearsals of Faith and preparations for moments of truth called witness (martyrdom).
Look up the Athanasian Creed. Print it out. Pocket it. Review it occasionally. Host a gathering or a meal with friends. Hand out copies, stand up and recite it aloud with a full, strong voice. Savor the lack of ambiguity!
Here is the Athanasian Creed:
Whoever wants to be saved should above all cling to the Catholic faith. Whoever does not guard it whole and inviolable will doubtless perish eternally. Now this is the Catholic faith: We venerate one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity (unum Deum in Trinitate, et Trinitatem in unitate veneremur), neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being. For the Father is one Person, the Son is another, and the Spirit is still another. But the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, equal in glory, coeternal in majesty. What the Father is, the Son is, and so is the Holy Spirit. Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son; uncreated is the Spirit. The Father is infinite; the Son is infinite; the Holy Spirit is infinite. Eternal is the Father; eternal is the Son; eternal is the Spirit: And yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; as there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited. Almighty is the Father; almighty is the Son; almighty is the Spirit: And yet there are not three almighty beings, but one who is almighty. Thus the Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God: And yet there are not three gods, but one God. Thus the Father is Lord; the Son is Lord; the Holy Spirit is Lord: And yet there are not three lords, but one Lord. As Christian truth compels us to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so Catholic religion forbids us to say that there are three gods or lords. The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten; the Son was neither made nor created, but was alone begotten of the Father; the Spirit was neither made nor created, but is proceeding from the Father and the Son. Thus there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three spirits. And in this Trinity, no one is before or after, greater or less than the other; but all three Persons are in themselves, coeternal and coequal (coaeternae sibi sunt et coaequales); and so we must worship the Trinity in unity and the one God in three Persons. Whoever wants to be saved should think thus about the Trinity.