Sts. Cyril and Methodius
Perennial Examples of Inculturation
BY The Editors
July 12-25, 2009 Issue | Posted 7/2/09 at 1:20 PM
Weekly General Audience June 17, 2009
During 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 ninth century.
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 the patriarchate.
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 him.
Mission to the Slavs
Back in Constantinople, Emperor Michael III sent the two brothers to Moravia at the specific request of Prince Ratislav of Moravia.
“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 there.
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 Nomocanon 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 alphabet.
We owe Methodius credit for ensuring that the work he undertook with his brother would not be abruptly interrupted.
While 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.
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