My wife and I have had a custom, every Feb. 14th since college, of exchanging cards with hearts on the front and “Happy Sts. Cyril and Methodius Day” messages on the inside — a gentle reminder that Feb. 14 is not St. Valentine's day, but theirs.
As it turns out, Pope John Paul II has given us a greater reason to celebrate those saints.
The Holy Father has written insightfully on the grand topics of our day. For him, encyclicals are foundation stones: Faith and Reason, On Human Work, the Redeemer of Man. But he also wrote an encyclical called Slavorum Apostoli,“The Apostles of the Slavs,” about Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who lived and died at the end of the first millennium.
In it, the Holy Father presents them as models for us at the end of the Third Millennium.
Cyril and Methodius were brothers from a socially well-to-do family on the border of the Byzantine empire and the Slav territories to the west. Both had bright futures in the world. But both — Methodius early on, Cyril after a brief career — entered the monastery on Mt. Olympus to offer their talents exclusively to God.
“The event which was to determine the whole of the rest of their lives,” the Pope wrote, “was the request made by Prince Rastislav of Greater Moravia to the Emperor Michael II to send to his peoples ‘a Bishop and teacher … able to explain to them the true Christian faith in their own language.’“ The two prepared well for their tasks, translating Scripture into Old Slavonic, and enjoyed success in their mission.
Cyril died Feb. 14, 869. On his deathbed in Rome he told Methodius, “Behold, my brother, we have shared the same destiny, plowing the same furrow; I now fall in the field at the end of my day. I know that you greatly love your Mountain, but do not for the sake of the Mountain give up your work of teaching. For where better can you find salvation?”
Methodius remained true to his broth-er's words and, despite persecution by pagans and opponents within the Church, sowed the seeds of one of Europe's most Catholic cultures — the one which eventually produced the present Pope.
Like these two brothers, many Americans come from backgrounds of prosperity and opportunity. Like them, we confront a culture that needs Christ badly. And like those two brothers, many of us have left the culture around us, at one time or another, to ascend Mount Olympus.
We went to a retreat, perhaps, or we went on a pilgrimage. We saw God for who he really is. And many of us, in one way or another, have stayed on our mountain, afraid to re-enter the darkness of our times.
“Do not for the sake of your Mountain give up your work of teaching. For where better can you find salvation?” the Pope tells us, as surely as the dying Cyril told Methodius.
On our Mount Olympus, the faith holds sway. Perhaps we have friends or family who share our passion for the Church. In our forays into the neighboring territories we want to say as little as possible, get what we need, and then hurriedly return to our mountain. To bring the faith to our neighbors, we would have to relearn the language of a culture we would sometimes rather forget.
The Pope's program for us, as transposed from the encyclical, is something like this: “ecome similar in every aspect to those to whom [you] are bringing the Gospel … share their lot in everything.
…. In order to translate the truths of the Gospel into a new language … make an effort to gain a good grasp of the interior world of those to whom … [you intend] to proclaim the word of God in images and concepts that would sound familiar to them.”
The Pope has practiced his advice. He speaks to scientists with scholarly precision, to poets in poetry, and to the young by encouraging their enthusiasm and vigor. He refuses to make them ascend Mount Olympus to find the faith. Instead, he offers it to them in their own language, in their own mode of thinking, as a living and active force in their lives.
There is a great deal more that we have in common with our neighbor on this level than what separates us, and our evangelization, if it is to be effective, will reflect this.
If the culture watches television, movies, and Internet, let the Gospel reach them there. If the culture is concerned with information and professional research, give the Gospel an expert voice. If the culture is worried about the day-to-day problems of family life, the Gospel can speak to those worries in a pre-eminent way.
If we truly speak to our generation about the faith in its own language, we won't merely put a Catholic veneer over the customs of our day.
We will do as Sts. Cyril and Methodius did. “By incarnating the Gospel in the native culture of the peoples which they were evangelizing [they] were especially meritorious for the formation and development of that same culture, or rather of many cultures.”
So maybe my wife and I are on the right track with our Sts. Cyril and Methodius Valentines. We will continue to exchange hearts and chocolates, fully appropriating the culture of our day — but with a prayer that we may all be modern Apostles of the Slavs, and help that culture turn its energy to the deeper love and joy of the Gospel.