The Liturgy

Last Sunday, my parish had a visiting priest. As he concluded the homily and was about to introduce the Profession of Faith, he paused briefly, looked over at me, and said, “I’m sorry — I forgot what creed we say at this parish.” After a quick chuckle, I said, “Nicene” and we were on our way with the words, “I believe in one God …” After Mass, someone turned to me and asked, “I know there are two creeds that we say at Mass, but what are the differences, and when do we say which one?” Let us take a look.

The word “creed” originates from the Latin word credo meaning “I believe.” They are statements of belief. In the early Church, creeds were used in two primary ways. First, in a society where most people did not read or write, memorizing and reciting a creed allowed the teachings of the Church to become oral tradition. In preparation for Baptism, catechumens would hear a series of homilies in a creed-like format, and then be required to recite the creed during a liturgical ceremony.

Second, creeds were used to identify and interpret Scripture. This may seem strange to us because we have a defined collection of Scripture, which occurred at the end of the fourth century; however, in the earliest days of the Church, Christians were still determining which writings were authentic and which were heresy. They had discussions, and even arguments, about everything from the meaning of Scripture to the divinity of Christ. These discussions eventually led us to the development of two creeds — the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creeds — which are both used at Mass today.

The Apostles’ Creed

The Apostles’ Creed is the earliest of the creeds and the name was given, not because it was written by the Apostles themselves, but because it was believed to encompass the basic teaching of the 12 Apostles. Most scholars believe it to be based on the second century baptismal creed of Rome, called the “Roman Symbol.” Its primary usage was, and still is, a baptismal creed. St. Ambrose (339-397) and St. Augustine (354-430) urged Christians to recite the Symbol of Faith daily as part of their devotional prayer life. This is why, to this day, the Apostles’ Creed is part of the devotional recitation of the Rosary.

There are two unique statements in the Apostles’ Creed that are not contained in the Nicene Creed. The first is the statement that after Jesus died, he “descended into hell.” This is a reference to 1 Peter 3:18-19, which states, “… Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the spirit. In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison.” This is further clarified in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (633), which says, “Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.”

The second unique statement in the Apostles’ Creed is the confession of belief in the “communion of saints.” Throughout Scripture, we are called into a familial relationship with God the Father, Christ the Son, and with each other, God’s children. We are called to love each other like we love our own flesh and blood. This is our belief “in the communion of saints.”

The Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed is largely an expansion of the Apostles’ Creed, and it is most used in the Church’s liturgy. It was a result of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and later revised in 381 to refute the Arian heresy, which said that Christ, fully human, was subordinate to God and therefore not fully divine. It unquestionably states that Christ is eternal and an equal part of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.”

Further, the Nicene Creed adds that Jesus is “begotten, not made.” During the Arian heresy, the distinction was made between “making” and “begetting.” If you “make” something, like a book, it does not share in the nature of the maker. But if you “beget” something, you give your nature to that which is “begotten.” Therefore, in the Nicene Creed we say, “begotten, not made,” meaning that the Son must be of the same nature as the Father — Divine.

Additionally, we say, “consubstantial with the Father,” meaning that the Son’s substance, or being, is identical to that of the Father and therefore, possesses all the qualities of divinity. And finally, to wrap things up even tighter, the Nicene Creed adds “through him all things were made.” This is still another way of identifying the Son with the Father, which the Creed said earlier was the “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”

A unique piece of the Nicene Creed is its address of the Holy Spirit. Even after the Arian heresy was addressed at the Council of Nicaea, the Council of Constantinople was called in 381 to address resurfacing questions. This Council reaffirmed the Creed of Nicaea and expanded it to address the denials of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

The statements after “I believe in the Holy Spirit” were added after the Council of Constantinople to define that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, not just the Father alone. In other words, the Spirit receives the divine nature from both the Father and the Son, which is important because if the Spirit received the divine nature from the Father alone, he would then be indistinguishable from the Son, thus confusing our belief in the Trinity.


The Church permits either Creed to be professed at Mass. Most common is the Nicene Creed, but the Roman Missal specifically mentions Lent and Easter as an appropriate time for the assembly to recite the Apostles’ Creed because of the seasons’ direct connection to Baptism. Regardless of which one we use, spend time getting to know both. This is what we believe.