Whosoever wills to be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith…
Of all the liturgical riches of this feast of the Most Blessed Trinity, the Athanasian Creed is perhaps one of the most important, even if by reason of its abolition in the post-conciliar liturgical reforms it is now widely unknown by Catholics, clergy, religious and laity alike. Its insertion at the end of Prime this morning seems peculiar, though as we know its recitation at Sunday Prime was from medieval times a regular feature of the Sacred Liturgy, being reduced to but once a year in the reforms of St Pius X.
Whatever may be said of its origins and authorship – and there are those who suggest it may even have been composed in these parts – the Athanasian Creed is a clear witness to the faith of the Church of the age of the Fathers, an age in which the contours of the Church’s Faith in the Blessed Trinity were distilled and defined through the employment of the careful doctrinal distinctions the creeds teach us to this day.
It is not these, however, that I wish to underline this morning. It is rather the fact of the Athanasian Creed, or moreover of its opening assertion, that I wish to recall: “Whosoever wills to be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith.” In doing so I would make two brief observations.
Firstly, this creed bluntly reminds us about the reality of salvation – and by implication of its opposite: of damnation. These eternal verities are just that: truths that will not go away. Any my will, my actions will lead either to my salvation or my damnation. My perseverance in my God-given vocation will be judged and will count.
Secondly, this creed states unambiguously that to be saved it is necessary to hold the Catholic faith. This is not to deny the Church’s teaching on the possibility of salvation in exceptional and extraordinary circumstances for those who die without becoming members of the Catholic Church and persevering in her life of faith and morals. But it is to reassert the reality that the salvation won for us by Our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross is ordinarily accessed by faithful membership of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church He founded. We are not free to presume otherwise.
This is something that many, if not most, are too embarrassed to assert today. Yes, it is good to be polite and to ‘get on well’ with others of different views or religious beliefs. And yes, respect is due to sincerely held religious convictions. But as today’s Gospel taught us at matins, we are called to make disciples of all nations (cf. Mt. 28: 18-20); to call all people to live the fulness of the Catholic faith: not to dialogue with them in a manner that is little more than an end in itself, or that massages the holding of partial truths and which does not challenge others to embrace the integral truth, splendour and beauty of the Catholic faith.
Monks are not usually primarily missionaries in the active sense – though we know many have been, and to great effect, and people do look to and come to monasteries in search of God. But our contemplation of this great Truth, the witness to it that we give through our fidelity to our vocation and in celebrating the Sacred Liturgy in its traditional richness and beauty, and our prayer for those more directly responsible for the Church’s mission ad extra, are essential contributions that we make daily to the missionary life of the Church. Let us not neglect them, nor forget their importance.
On this most blessed feast of the Holy Trinity, then, let us renew our faith in this great mystery, and let us pray that, for nothing less than their very salvation, “all nations” shall come to hold and live the Catholic faith.