The mighty foe of Arians, St Athanasius of Alexandria (d 373), bishop and Doctor of the Church, is celebrated on May 2 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 the 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 (Symbolum Quicumque), commonly attributed to the saintly doctor. A medieval legend holds that Athanasius, during one of his exiles, gave the text to Pope Julius I. JND Kelly, who wrote a book on this creed, suggests that St Vincent of Lérins (d c435) might have been the author. That aside, it contains precise Trinitarian and Christological statements and ends with the not terribly 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).
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