A Note From Fr. Timothy
“Consubstantial with the Father”
In my last bulletin article (August 28th), I wrote a little bit about the change in the official English translation of the Mass which we experienced about a decade ago. I now want to focus a little more on one specific change that we all noticed at the time, but at this point has likely become rather unremarkable to many. And that is the word “consubstantial” as used in the Nicene Creed “consubstantial with the Father.”
Some of you may be so used to using “consubstantial” in the creed at Mass that you might not even remember what it replaced. Others might remember it because it replaced a relatively simple phrase – “one in being” – with a much more complicated term. Many of you perhaps heard a number of different homilies or read different articles about the reason for making those various translations in the Mass, but I think it is good to get a reminder and re-reflect on what some of those changes mean and how they can continue to enlighten our prayers.
In a general sense, “consubstantial” does mean “one in being”, so we might ask the question why the Church felt it was necessary to use the ten-dollar word. One explanation is that “one in being”, while it does have a meaning that is the same as “consubstantial”, does not convey enough meaning. We should all be aware that there are words and phrases in other languages that do not have a direct translation into English (and vice-versa). There are single words that can express multiple concepts. In those instances, the literal meaning is often determined by context, but the other concepts or meaning are evoked by the word such that it gives the reader or listener a broader picture of what the author or speaker is trying to convey. A translation to another language often loses those deeper meanings and they would be impossible to find unless you study the original language or read a detailed analysis of the text.
Another (perhaps more literal) translation of “consubstantial” might be “(of the) same substance”. For the early Church fathers, “substance” did not refer necessary to the material of a thing (as we often think today). Instead, it conveyed more an understanding of the thing’s “essence” or “being”, both of which would also be accurate translations. Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, is God. His being is not merely similar to the Father’s, or just some smaller part of the Father. Rather, they share the exact same essence or being. The Trinity is three persons, but only one nature.
In trying to convey this reality in a creed, the members of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) basically had to invent an entirely new word. They used “homoousion” in the Greek, which was translated to “consubstantialem” in the Latin, from which we get “consubstantial” in the English. There was actually much debate about the use of that word in the creed at the council, since it did not appear in the Bible and was a recent and arguably complicated concept. Ultimately, they decided it most clearly expressed the truth of the nature of Jesus and kept it. The term “consubstantial” carries with it a lot of history and meaning as we use it in our Profession of Faith, and I think it is most fitting that we continue to use it every Sunday.
Fr. Timothy Gapinski