Saints Cyril and Methodius

Saints Cyril, Monk, and Methodius, Bishop
827–869; 815–884

February 14—Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Co-Patrons of Europe and Apostles to the Slavs

Two makers of Europe ignite the steady flame of Christianity in the East

The Cyrillic alphabet used by hundreds of millions of people in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia, is named after today’s Cyril. Numerous proofs could be advanced for why a certain person is historically significant. Few proofs, however, can eclipse an alphabet being named after you. The evangelical labors of Cyril and Methodius were so path breaking, long lasting, and culture forming that these brothers stand in the very first rank of the Church’s greatest missionaries. Shoulder to shoulder with brave men such as Patrick, Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface, Ansgar, and others, they baptized nations, mustered clans from the forests, codified laws, transcribed alphabets, and gathered the crude pagan gropings for the divine into the transcendent worship of the one true God at Mass. Saints Cyril and Methodius helped form the religiously undivided reality of Christendom long before it was ever called Europe.

Cyril was baptized as Constantine and was known by that name until late in his life. He and Methodius were from Thessalonica, in northern Greece, where they spoke not only Greek but also Slavonic, a critical linguistic advantage for their later missionary adventures. Cyril and Methodius received excellent educations in their youth and, as they matured, were given important educational, religious, and political appointments in an age when those disciplines were braided into one sturdy cord. The people, the state, and the Church were an undivided whole. Cyril and Methodius served the imperial court, the one true Church, and their native land as professors, governors, abbots, deacons, priests, and bishops.

Sometime after 860 the brothers were commissioned by the Emperor in Constantinople to lead a missionary crew heading into Moravia, in today’s Czech Republic. They walked straight into a tangled web of political, religious, linguistic, and liturgical controversies which have vexed Eastern and Central Europe even until today. The Church of Rome allowed only three languages to be used in its liturgical and scriptural texts—Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—the three languages inscribed above Christ’s head on the cross. The Church in the East, juridically under Rome but culturally spinning off into its own orbit over the centuries, was a patchwork of peoples where local vernaculars were used in the liturgy. Languages are always spoken long before they are written, and the spoken Slavonic of Moravia had unique sounds demanding new letters populating a new alphabet. Cyril created that new alphabet, and then he and Methodius translated Scripture, various liturgical books, and the Mass into written Slavonic. This led to some serious tensions.

The newly Christianized German bishops were suspicious of missionaries in their own neighborhood who came from Greece, spoke Slavonic, and who celebrated the sacred mysteries in a quasi-Byzantine style. Moravia and the greater Slavic homeland were under German ecclesiastical jurisdiction, not the Greeks. How could the Mass be said in Slavonic, or the Gospels translated into that new language? How could a Byzantine liturgy co-exist with the Latin rite? Cyril and Methodius went to Rome to resolve these various issues with the Pope and his advisers.

The brothers were treated respectfully in Rome as well-educated and heroic missionaries. Cyril died and was buried in the Eternal City. Methodius returned to the land of the Slavs and to ongoing tensions with German ecclesiastics and princes. He  translated virtually the entire Bible into Slavonic, assembled a code of Byzantine church and civil law, and firmly established, with the Pope’s permission, the use of Slavonic in the liturgy. After Methodius’ death, however, German and Latin Rite influences prevailed. The Byzantine Rite, the use of Slavonic in the liturgy, and the Cyrillic alphabet were all forced from Central to Eastern Europe, particularly Bulgaria, shortly after he died. While they were always honored in the East, the Feast of Ss. Cyril and Methodius was extended to the entire Catholic Church only in 1880. Pope Saint John Paul II named Saints Cyril and Methodius Co-Patrons of Europe. Their massive legacy inspires the two lungs of the Church, both East and West, to breathe more deeply the enriched oxygen of the entire Christian tradition.

Saints Cyril and Methodius, you prepared yourselves for brave and generous service to Christ and His Church through long years of preparation and, when the time came, served heroically. May we so prepare, and so serve, until we can serve no more.


Further Reading:

Sanctoral

EWTN

Catholic Online

Franciscan Media

New Advent

Wikipedia


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