Saints Cyril and Methodius: February 14

“Saints Cyril and Methodius holding the Cyrillic alphabet,” a mural by Bulgarian iconographer Z. Zograf,

The saints of our calendar not only make us aware of the challenges they faced in their time, but also what we face today.  Saints Cyril and Methodius are good examples. They’re  called “Apostles to the Slavic Peoples” because they inspired translations of the gospels and the liturgy for the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe in the 9th century. 

They were brothers, born and educated in Greece, who entered monastic life. They were also well connected politically, and so they were sent to eastern Europe by the Emperor Michael III at the request of Prince Ratislav of Moravia. “Our people have rejected paganism”, Ratislav wrote to Michael, “they have embraced Christianity; but we do not have a teacher who can explain the true faith to us in our own language”.

Historians point out that, besides religious formation, Ratislav was also looking for a political alliance with the Byzantine empire. 

Cyril and Methodius were skilled linguists who learned the Slavonic language as children and were convinced that people could not fully receive Revelation unless they heard it in their own language and read it in characters in their own alphabet. Their translations became immensely popular among the Slavic people.

The brothers faced opposition, however, from Frankish missionaries from the west who, concerned about extending their own political influence in the area, objected to the formation of a native Slavic church. One of the issues raised was what’s called the “trilingual heresy”, which claimed that there were only three languages in which you could lawfully praise God: Hebrew, Greek and Latin. 

In 867 the two brothers decided to go to Rome for papal support. Pope Adrian II sided with the two brother, approving the use of the Slavonic language in the liturgy. The Slavonic Books were laid on the altar of the church of St. Mary Major and the liturgy in Slavonic was celebrated in the Basilicas of St Peter and St. Paul.

Unfortunately, Cyril fell ill and died on February 14, 869 in Rome, where he was buried in the Church of San Clemente. Before dying, he urged his brother Methodius, who had been ordained a bishop, to complete their missionary work. In one of his writings he wrote: “Lord, my God… hear my prayers and keep the flock you have entrusted to me faithful …. Free them from the heresy of the three languages, gather them all in unity and make the people you have chosen agree in confessing the true faith.”

The following year, 870, Methodius returned to Moravia and Pannonia (today, Hungary), and was again violently opposed by Frankish missionaries. He died April 6, 885, but his disciples continued his work, translating the scriptures, forming the liturgy and creating an alphabet known today as the Cyrillic alphabet. 

In 1980 Pope John Paul II recognized the work of Cyril and Methodius by naming them patrons of Europe. 

In June, 2009 Pope Benedict XVI said of them:“Cyril and Methodius are in fact a classic example of what today is meant by the term “inculturation”: every people must integrate the message revealed into its own culture and express its saving truth in its own language. This implies a very demanding effort of ‘translation’ because it requires the identification of the appropriate words to present anew, without distortion, the riches of the revealed word.” 

The pope stressed the “demanding effort of translation,” but Cyril and Methodius also remind us that politics can enter the process of inculturation. We may see that happening in efforts today to preserve the latin Mass and also the dangerous situation in the Ukraine, where once the two brothers labored for a short time.

In Mark’s Gospel tomorrow Jesus warns his disciples to “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Watch out for the dangers that come from religion and politics.

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