February 14 – Cyril and Methodius

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Cyril and Methodius, Christian pioneers

The ninth century was perhaps the most active period of missionary activity in the Eastern (Orthodox) churches since apostolic times. Patriarch Photius chose two Greek brothers from Thessalonica, Constantine whose monastic name was Cyril, (826-869), and Methodius (?815-885) to initiate the conversion of the pagan Slavs – Moravians, Bulgarians, Serbs and Russians. They had grown up on the borders of these lands, and they knew the Slavonic language, amongst others. Cyril was a librarian and known as a philosopher; both were ordained priests. In 863 they set off for what is now the Czech lands with an invitation from the local prince and the blessing of the Byzantine emperor. In preparation for this venture, the brothers had translated the Gospels, the larger part of the New Testament and some of the Old, and the liturgical books into Slavonic, an enormous task, especially since they had to begin by inventing an alphabet, now known, in a developed form, as Glagolithic or Cyrillic. That is, they set out with the basic tools to build a church of peoples who did not know Christ. What is known as Church Slavonic is still the basic liturgical language of the Russian and related churches, and a great literature grew from it in the related languages.
Their methodology however was in contrast to that of Rome, whose missionaries had to teach their converts Latin before they could teach them anything else – and indeed there were clashes between missionaries of the two Christian centres. At this stage, however, the eastern and western wings believed themselves to belong to the one universal church, and the brothers travelled to Rome to place their mission under the Pope. Their exceptional approach and their church books received his blessing, but sadly, under that pope’s successor, and under German Catholic influence back in Moravia, the old Latin approach was enforced, and the saints’ work eradicated soon after Methodius died. However, the seeds had been sown, and bore fruit especially in Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia, whose rulers consciously chose Cyril and Methodius’s way. Rightly are they know as the ‘apostles of the Slavs’. Success took a long time, and was largely achieved by decision of tsars and princes. Some half-convinced Greek missionaries used Greek, which was no more understandable to the Bulgars than Latin; in Romania, a Latin-based culture, the Slavonic influence is still mixed with the Latin in the Orthodox Church.

The younger brother Cyril died in Rome (he became a monk in 868 just before his death on February 14th, 869) and is buried there. Methodius had been made a bishop by the pope (ca 870) for his return to Moravian lands after their embassy to Rome. He was imprisoned for two years by rival church authorities, and endured many years of theological and ecclesiastical disputes. He died in Moravia. Their pupils, however, carried on the work into further lands, paving the way for their declaration as co-Patrons of Europe, with St Benedict, by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

By Rev Prof Robert Gribben