10 February 2023

Saint of the Week – St Cyril and St Methodius

The establishment of Christianity throughout Europe in the first five hundred years of the Church’s missionary venture was complicated (among other factors) by the vast array of nationalities, languages and cultures that inhabited this populous continent.

Name: Cyril (born Constantine)

Born: c. 826 AD; Thessalonica (Greece)

Died: 14th February 869 AD; Rome

Name: Methodius (born Michael)

Born: c. AD 815; Thessalonica (Greece)

Died: c 6th April 885AD; Velehrad (Moravia)

Feast Day: 14th February

Patron Saints of: Europe; The Slavic nations (Slovakia; Bulgaria; Serbia; Czech Republic; Macedonia)

The Latin and Greek speaking parts of the Roman empire had the advantage of a common language which helped propel the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean. Among the last regions of Europe to be evangelised were the Slavic nations in what was then called Great Moravia. St Cyril and Methodius are honoured as the ‘Apostles to the Slavs’ who succeeded in breaking through the language barrier to communicate the Gospel to these lands.

Cyril and Methodius were brothers born into a devout Christian family in Thessalonica. After studying the secular sciences in Constantinople Cyril became a priest. His fame for scholarly erudition was such that he was nick-named ‘the Philosopher’. Among his teachers at the university was the Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius. Together with Emperor Michael III, Photius recognised the gifts of Cyril as both an evangelist and a linguist and sent Cyril on a mission to the Khazars (modern day Ukraine). It’s possible that Methodius joined him on this mission.

Methodius who was twelve years senior to Cyril, had gifts and inclinations that were more political than scholarly. He served as a provincial governor for some years before becoming priest and abbot. Both Cyril and Methodius had a strong missionary zeal to bring the light of Christian faith into those parts of Eastern Europe where it had yet to gain a foothold.

Their opportunity arrived in 862 when the Duke Ratislav of Moravia requested Emperor Michael III to send missionaries to evangelise his lands, stipulating that they must speak Slavonic. Both Cyril and Methodius were fluent in Slavonic, and were the obvious choice to lead the mission. Among their first tasks was to translate into Slavonic not only the Bible (which would have been a sufficiently remarkable achievement) but also the Roman Missal and other Greek Liturgical texts. Although Slavonic was a widespread language it was up to this point only spoken, not a written language. It fell to Cyril to devise the Glagolitic script (based upon the Greek alphabet) which subsequently developed into the Cyrillic script (named after St Cyril). The ‘Old Slavonic’ is preserved in the liturgies of both the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches to this day. The mission was a resounding success in spite of the opposition of the neighbouring German bishops, hampered only by the dire shortage of priests. Without a local bishop they were unable to ordain priests, a pastoral situation that in part prompted Cyril and Methodius to travel to Rome to seek the Pope’s support. While there Cyril became a monk, yet he died shortly thereafter and was buried with great solemnity at the ancient basilica of San Clemente (so chosen because Cyril had brought with him the relics of Saint Clement to Rome from the Crimea).

Whilst in Rome Methodius was consecrated bishop of Sirmium by Pope Hadrian in 870. His territory was vast, stretching across Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Moravia, making it the Eastern-most outpost of the Western (Latin) Church. Thoroughly convinced of Methodius’ orthodoxy, Pope Hadrian granted Methodius permission to use Slavonic in the liturgy rather than Latin. The German bishops vehemently opposed Methodius and the use of the Slavonic Rites on largely political grounds, since his territory bordered their own. Acting under political pressure, Hadrian’s successor, Pope John, revoked the permission for use of the Slavonic Rites, until ten years later Methodius was able to persuade the Pope of the pastoral value of the Slavonic language for his mission. In spite of the unrelenting difficulties (practical and political) they faced, by the time of their death Cyril and Methodius had laid a firm foundation for Christianity throughout much of Eastern Europe. Interestingly, although today we see Christianity in catastrophic decline throughout Western Europe, the lands evangelised by Cyril and Methodius remain to this day the most staunchly Christian part of Europe, and the ancient Slavonic Rites are still in use.

The evangelising approach of Cyril and Methodius provides a timeless lesson. They remind us of the importance of engaging with the culture and communicating the Gospel in a form that is effective, whilst being faithful and uncompromising with the core content of the Catholic Faith. In the modern world so much of social discourse happens on-line via social media: the ‘public square’ is now largely virtual. It is important to be able to be able to use this forum to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in a language that is accessible and appealing, without diluting the central truths of our faith. The flourishing of a range of Catholic media outlets (EWTN, Parousia, Augustine Institute, Ascension Press, Word on Fire, etc.) as well as a plethora of individual online commentators, shows that this can be done well, enabling the Church to continue her mission of making disciples of all nations.

Saints Cyril and Methodius, pray for us!