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Why do we name Pontius Pilate in the Creed at Mass?

PONTIUS PILATE, CHRIST
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Isn’t he a “bad guy”? Why is he signaled out and not others, such as Judas Iscariot?

On Sundays and special solemnities of the Catholic Church’s calendar, the Christian faithful recite what is commonly called the Nicene Creed. In the words of this Creed (as well as the Apostles Creed) the only names mentioned are the Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. Odd, right?

Why is it that these are the only two names in the Creed? And especially, why is a “villain” given such a prominent place in the Church’s summary of faith?

The inclusion of Pilate’s name in the creed can be traced back to the very beginnings of the Catholic Church. This section of the prayer was already quoted by Tertullian by the early 3rd century. For the early Christians, it was essential to include Pilate’s name.

One of the primary reasons the Church has kept this inclusion is to reinforce the historicity of Jesus’ Passion. The existence of Pontius Pilate can be verified by sources outside of the Gospels and his name provides a powerful reminder that Jesus’ death occurred within the context of Roman rule and at a specific date in human history.

Also, the creed was developed during the first few centuries of the Church, at a time when Christians were still under the Roman Empire. The inclusion of Pilate’s name was a way to situate Jesus within the history of the Roman Empire, appealing in a particular way to Roman Gentiles.

Read more: Ring of Pontius Pilate found near Bethlehem

On the other hand, Fr. John Hardon believed the inclusion of Pilate’s name was meant to be a symbol of those political leaders who have persecuted Christians over the centuries. Hardon writes, “It is not coincidental that Pontius Pilate should be identified in the Apostles Creed. Pilate symbolizes the sufferings and persecution of the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ.”

There were three main charges which the Jews brought against Jesus. “We have found this man,” they claimed “perverting our nation, and forbidding the payment of taxes to Caesar and saying that he is Christ the king” (Luke 23:2). As we know all these charges were malicious. They were also political in nature. Yet they were enough to sway the cowardly Pilate to condemn Jesus to death. This has been the history of the Catholic Church ever since. By now millions of faithful followers of Christ have shed their blood for their fidelity to the Savior. Without exception, it has been the Pilates of every age who have been used by Christ’s enemies to persecute the Church He founded.

Read more: Hard to believe but yes, there are more martyrs today than in 1st centuries

The use of Pilate’s name is also considered by many as a symbol of our own participation in the Passion and death of Jesus. In a certain sense, we were Pilate, condemning Jesus to death, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out.

In her Magisterial teaching of the faith and in the witness of her saints, the Church has never forgotten that “sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured.” Taking into account the fact that our sins affect Christ himself, the Church does not hesitate to impute to Christians the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus.

In the end, Pilate is included in the creed not to place all the burden of Jesus’ death upon his shoulders, but as a name that represents various spiritual and temporal truths. Our sins were the primary reason Jesus died on the cross. Jesus freely gave his life for us all in order the we might experience the beauty of the resurrection.

Read more: Why do some Christians consider Pontius Pilate a saint?

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