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Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.
BY The Editors
Weekly General Audience June 17, 2009
his general audience on June 17, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on
the early Christian writers of the Church. He offered his reflections on Sts.
Cyril and Methodius, two brothers from Thessalonica who lived in the early
Cyril and Methodius experienced
a call to preach the Gospel to the Slavic people. They invented an alphabet for
the Slavic language and translated the liturgy, the Bible and the texts of the
Church fathers into Slavonic, shaping the culture of the Slavic peoples and
leaving an outstanding example of inculturation.
Pope John Paul II proclaimed
Sts. Cyril and Methodius co-patrons of Europe, together with St. Benedict.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak about
Sts. Cyril and Methodius, blood brothers, but also brothers in the faith, who
are known as the Apostles to the Slavs.
Cyril, the youngest of seven
children, was born in Thessalonica around the year 826 or 827 and was the son
of the imperial magistrate, Leo. He learned the Slavic language as a child.
When he was 14 years old, he was
sent to Constantinople for further education and was a companion of the young
Emperor Michael III.
During that time, Cyril was
introduced to various disciplines at the university — including dialectics —
which he studied under a teacher named Photius.
After turning down the prospect of a
promising marriage, Cyril decided to be ordained and became the librarian at
Shortly thereafter, wishing to
withdraw to a life of solitude, he hid in a monastery, but he was promptly
discovered and assigned to teach the sacred and profane sciences — a task he
carried out so well that he earned the title of “philosopher.”
Meanwhile, his brother Michael, who
was born around the year 815, abandoned his administrative career in Macedonia
around the year 850 and retired to a monastery in Bithynia on Mount Olympus,
where he received the name Methodius (his monastic name had to begin with the
same letter as his baptismal name) and became abbot of the monastery of Polychron.
Attracted by his brother’s example,
Cyril also decided to leave his teaching job and dedicate himself to meditation
and prayer on Mount Olympus.
A few years later, however, around
the year 861, the imperial government entrusted him with a mission to the
Khazar people living around the Sea of Azov, who had asked that a scholar be
sent to them who was capable of debating with Saracens and Jews.
Cyril, accompanied by his brother,
spent an extended period of time in Crimea, where he learned Hebrew.
While he was there, he searched for
the remains of Pope Clement I, who had died there in exile. He found his tomb,
and, when he and his brother left Crimea, he carried the precious relics with
Mission to the Slavs
Back in Constantinople, Emperor Michael
III sent the two brothers to Moravia at the specific request of Prince Ratislav
“Since rejecting paganism,” he
explained, “our people observe the laws of Christianity. But we do not have a
teacher who is capable of explaining the true faith to us in our own language.”
The mission soon met with unexpected success.
By translating the liturgy into the
Slavonic language, the two brothers earned great affection among the people.
However, this also aroused the hostility of the Frankish clergy, who had
arrived in Moravia before them and considered the territory as part of their
own ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
In order to justify their work, the
brothers traveled to Rome in 867. En route, they stopped in Venice, where they
had a heated debate with supporters of the so-called “trilingual heresy,” who
maintained there were only three languages in which God could be legitimately
praised: Hebrew, Greek and Latin.
For obvious reasons, the two
brothers vigorously opposed their stance.
When they arrived in Rome, Cyril and
Methodius were received by Pope Adrian II, who met them with a procession in
order to receive in a worthy manner the relics of Pope St. Clement. The Pope
understood the great importance of their exceptional mission.
Indeed, from the middle of the first
millennium, the Slavs had settled in great numbers in the territories located
between the two parts of the Roman Empire, the East and the West, which were
already experiencing tension between them.
The Pope sensed that the Slavic
peoples could act as a bridge between them, contributing in this way to
maintaining unity among Christians from both parts of the Empire. Thus, he did
not hesitate to approve the mission of the two brothers to Greater Moravia,
welcoming and approving the use of the Slavic language in the liturgy.
The Slavic liturgical books were
placed on the altar of St. Mary Phatmé (St. Mary Major), and the liturgy in
Slavic was celebrated in the basilicas of St. Peter, St. Andrew and St. Paul.
Unfortunately, Cyril fell seriously
ill while in Rome. Sensing that death was near, he devoted himself totally to
God as a monk in one of the Greek monasteries in the city (probably the
monastery of St. Praxedes).
He took the name Cyril as his
monastic name. (His baptismal name was Constantine.) With great insistence, he
begged his brother Methodius, who, in the meantime, had been consecrated a
bishop, not to abandon their mission to Moravia and to return to the people
He turned to God with these words:
“Oh Lord, my God ... hear my prayer and keep faithful to you the flock to whom
I would have offered myself. ... Free them from the heresy of the three
languages, gather them together in unity, and unite the people you have chosen
in the true faith and in an upright confession.”
He died on Feb. 14 of the year 869.
Faithful to the commitment he had
made to his brother, Methodius returned the following year (870) to Moravia and
to Pannonia (modern-day Hungary), where, once again, he encountered violent
opposition from the Frankish missionaries, who threw him into prison.
Nevertheless, he did not lose heart.
When he was released in 873, he
proceeded to work actively in organizing the Church and in forming a group of
disciples. To their great credit, these disciples were able to overcome the
crisis that broke out after Methodius’ death on April 6 of the year 885.
Persecuted and jailed, some of them
were sold as slaves and taken to Venice, where they were ransomed by an
official from Constantinople, who allowed them to return to the lands of the
Balkan Slavs. Welcomed in Bulgaria, they were able to continue the mission that
Methodius had begun, spreading the Gospel in “the land of the Rus.”
God, in his mysterious providence,
used this persecution in order to save the work of the two saintly brothers.
Documentation of their mission has
been handed down to us in various literary works. There are, for example, the Evangelarium
(excerpts from the New Testament for use in the liturgy), their Psalter, and
various liturgical texts in the Slavic language on which both brothers worked.
After the death of Cyril, Methodius
and his disciples worked on the translation of the entire sacred Scripture, the
and the Books of the Fathers, among others.
To give a brief spiritual profile of
the two brothers, we must first note the passion with which Cyril studied the
writings of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, from whom he learned the importance of
language in transmitting God’s revelation.
St. Gregory expressed a desire that
Christ would speak through him: “I am a servant of the Word, thus I place
myself at the service of the Word.”
Wishing to imitate Gregory in this
service, Cyril asked Christ to speak in Slavic through him. He prefaced his
translations with the following solemn invocation: “Listen, all you Slavic
peoples, and hear the word that comes from God, the word that nourishes the
soul, the word that leads to knowledge of God.”
Actually, a few years before the
Prince of Moravia requested that Emperor Michael III send missionaries to his
land, apparently Cyril and his brother Methodius, along with a group of
disciples, were already working on a plan to gather together the teachings of
Christianity in books written in Slavic. This clearly entailed the need for new
graphic symbols that were closer to the spoken language.
This gave birth to the Glagolitic
alphabet, which, subsequently modified, eventually became known as “Cyrillic”
in honor of the man who inspired it. This was a decisive event for the
development of Slavic civilization in general.
Co-Patrons of Europe
Cyril and Methodius were convinced
that individual peoples could not claim to have fully received Revelation until
they had heard it in their own language and read it in the letters of their own
We owe Methodius credit for ensuring
that the work he undertook with his brother would not be abruptly interrupted.
Cyril, the “philosopher,” was inclined to lead a contemplative life, Methodius,
on the other hand, was drawn to an active life. Because of this, he was able to
lay the premises for the successive affirmation of what we might call the
“Cyrillo-Methodian idea,” which was to characterize the Slavic people
throughout their various historical periods and facilitated their cultural,
national and religious development.
Pope Pius XI acknowledged this in
his apostolic letter Quod Sanctum Cyrillum,
in which he described the two brothers as “sons of the Orient, from the
Byzantine nation, Greek by origin, Roman by mission, and Slavic by their apostolic
fruits” (AAS 19  93-96).
The historic role they played was
officially proclaimed by Pope John Paul II who, in his apostolic letter Egregiae
Virtutis Viri, declared them co-patrons of Europe along with St.
Benedict (AAS 73  258-262).
Indeed, Cyril and Methodius provide
a classic example of what today we call “inculturation,” whereby every people
must integrate the revealed message into their own culture and express the
truths of salvation with their own language.
This implies a very exacting work of
“translation” that requires finding adequate terms to express anew the richness
of the word that has been revealed while not betraying its meaning.
These two saintly brothers have left
us a particularly significant testimony to which the Church continues to look
today and from which she continues to draw inspiration and guidance.