Early in my days as a Catholic (i.e. the early 1980s), I worked in a parish that was on the cutting edge of what I guess would be called “progressive” liturgy. We did the RCIA up big, climaxing in immersion baptisms at a six-hour Easter Vigil. We occasionally used some not-yet-authorized (and, in the end, never-authorized) Eucharistic Prayers produced by ICEL. And we never used the Creed at Mass on Sundays.
I must have been drawn to progressive liturgy (generally the singing was better and people were friendlier), because during the next decade or so I belonged to two other parishes where the Creed was used rarely if ever. I heard various reasons given for this. One was that the entire liturgy, and the Eucharistic Prayer in particular, was a proclamation of faith, so the Creed was redundant. Another was that it was contrary to the nature of liturgical celebration to insert a “loyalty oath” in the middle. Yet another was that the language was inherently patriarchal and offended people.
Either times have changed or I have (probably both), but now I virtually never attend a Sunday Mass where the Creed is not said. I suspect there are one or two places within driving distance of me where I could go if I wanted to avoid the Creed, but why would I do that? Creed-avoidance was never a motivator for me. Younger clergy (by which I mean those under 60) seem much more inclined to “say the black and do the red” than the previous generation (though some places seem to prefer the Apostles’ Creed to the Nicene–an authorized substitution–perhaps because it shaves 45 seconds off the liturgy). But I think that we have not really thought that much about why we do say the Creed at Mass.
It is well know that the Creed is a latecomer to the Eucharistic liturgy. The New Testament contains some creed-like statement (e.g. 1 Cor 15:3-6; 1 Tim 3:16) that might have had a liturgical origin, but we cannot be sure of that. Creeds certainly had a place in the baptismal liturgy, maybe from the outset, but surely from the second century on. Justin Martyr described the act of Baptism interlaced with credal statements:
There is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe…. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.
The Apostolic Tradition in the third century and Ambrose in the fourth century explicitly testify to a similar intertwining of the baptismal washing with a profession of faith. In other places, of course, a credal profession of faith preceded Baptism.
Even once the Nicene Creed reached its final form in 381 as an ecumenical statement of faith, it does not seem to have been envisioned for use in the Eucharistic liturgy. It was first used in the Eucharist in Constantinople in the early sixth century, introduced by a Patriarch of dubious orthodoxy who wanted to assert his adherence to past teachings. There it was used (as it still is in the Byzantine liturgy) immediately before the Eucharistic Prayer, perhaps to signify the orthodoxy of those preparing to enter into the divine mysteries. It first appeared in the West in Spain in the late sixth century, placed between the Eucharistic Prayer and the Our Father, seemingly as part of the preparation for communion. It didn’t appear in Europe outside of the Iberian peninsula until the late eighth century, when Charlemagne (or maybe–let’s be real–Alcuin) placed it in the familiar position after the Gospel (and homily). Finally, as to one untimely born, it was introduced in Rome in the early eleventh century, perhaps not without a bit of arm-twisting by Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Though the original form of the Nicene Creed was in the first person plural (“We believe”), since it was a collective statement of the bishops gather in council, in most places it has be used liturgically in the first person singular. When English-speaking Catholics began using the 2011 translation of the Mass, which switched from “We” back to “I,” some suspected nefarious motives behind the change–a capitulation to Western individualism or something like that. But in fact, the change not only more accurately translated the Latin, it also reflected the actual practice of most Christian with regard to liturgical use of the Creed, both down through the centuries and today.
So does any of this tell us anything about why we use the Creed at Mass? It suggests that the Creed is a secondary (or, maybe tertiary) element of the Mass, not only because it was a relatively late arrival, but also because in the Latin Rite the vast majority of Masses (i.e. on weekdays) are celebrated without it. But it also suggests that it is not unimportant, since people went to the trouble to introduce it. Often, as in Constantinople and Spain, it was introduced to counteract heretical beliefs, enshrining in the liturgy a profession of orthodox faith. At other times, as in Charlemagne’s realm and eventually in Rome, it was introduced as a valuable marker of unity with the Universal Church of East and West (this is one reason why I dislike the use of the Apostles’ Creed at Mass, since it is a local Western creed and not ecumenical).
Both of these seem like good reasons to use the Creed in the Eucharistic Liturgy. Some might argue, as I used to hear folks argue, that this introduces a loyalty oath into Mass. To which I might reply, “OK, what’s wrong with loyalty oaths, particularly since it is God to whom we are pledging our loyalty?” It seems to me that the Creed does something unique in the liturgy: unlike the Eucharistic Prayer’s recitation of God’s mighty acts, it is our act of binding ourselves to the triune God in faith. It is a promise both personal (“I believe”) and communal, recited in one voice. It is (as I suggested this past Trinity Sunday) like a marriage vow, by which we bind ourselves anew to God in faith. Which seems like a good thing to do when God’s people gather to celebrate the Lord’s passover.