Today we're celebrating the feast that commemorates the greatest of all mysteries within Christianity, the Most Holy Trinity. This feast always brings up the question “How do you explain the Holy Trinity?” Most of us could probably come up with the traditional formulation “The Trinity is One God, Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” if asked. OK, so we understand that, but what does that really mean? How do you explain what the formula really means?
This is a question that has plagued some of the greatest philosophers and theologians throughout the history of Christianity. Some of the greatest minds have dwelt long and hard on this issue. St. Thomas Aquinas dedicated a large chunk of the Summa Theologica, his master work, on the questions that surround the Trinity. Many people are familiar with St. Patrick's use of the three-leaf clover to demonstrate the relationship between the Trinity. An image called the Shield of the Trinity explains the relationship within the Trinity by use of a triangle.
While these images and reflections on the Trinity are attempts to help us to better grasp this great mystery, we still have to come to the realization that we are no closer to understanding the Trinity than we were when Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:19) The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself.” (CCC 234) If we get the Holy Trinity wrong, we get the whole of Christian belief wrong.
Throughout the history of the Church many people, theologians, philosophers, bishops, and priests, have spread false or confusing theories on the Holy Trinity, which caused division and even violence within the Church. Many heresies in the first centuries of the Church were caused by faulty understanding of the Trinity, and more than a few of the early councils of the Church were called to correct these poor theologies. Because of these heresies, the Church has declared specific formulas to express our belief in the Trinity. We proclaim these formulas as we recite the Nicene Creed at every Sunday Mass, but the Church is also aware that these formulations are likely just scratching the surface of what the Trinity truly is. As Christians, we need to trust in the Church's teachings on the Trinity, as we should trust and follow all that the Magisterium presents as authoritative, even if we don't understand those teachings completely.
Due to our inability to truly understand what the Trinity really means, any variation on the Church's teaching on the Trinity usually results in a complete denial of the relationships within the Trinity. Over the past three to four decades, it became fashionable among priests to stop using the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit for the Three Persons of the Trinity. Instead, these priests would use the terms Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, which describe what each person of the Trinity does for us. In place of a description of the relationship between the three persons, the new titles tell us the jobs that they do for us here on Earth.
Some priests even went so far as to use these terms in the Baptismal Rite, going against Our Lord's command that we heard in today's Gospel reading. Because these priests refused to baptize as Jesus commanded, they never actually performed the Sacrament of Baptism, but just made an unbaptized baby wet. It also caused a lot of heartache and anger when people were notified that the baptism needed to be performed once again, sometimes after many years. By not following the teachings of the Church, these priests caused great scandal among the faithful members of the Church.
Although we do not totally understand the Holy Trinity, One God in Three Persons, we are called to accept this mystery with deep faith in the revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ as passed down through the Magisterium of the Church. May we have the faith to believe what we do not truly understand.