Saints Cyril and Methodius

The Greek missionaries Saints Cyril (827-869) and Methodius (825-885) were the apostles of the Slavic peoples. Preaching Christianity in the native language, they brought the Slavic countries firmly into the sphere of the Christian Church.

Methodius was 2 years old when his brother, Cyril, was born in Thessalonica in northeastern Greece in 827. Cyril was given the name Constantine at his baptism. Methodius entered the service of the Byzantine emperor and worked faithfully, if without distinction, for a number of years. Constantine studied at the imperial university in Constantinople but refused the offer of a governor's post and asked instead to be ordained a priest. He was more intellectually inclined than Methodius and spent some years as the official librarian of the most important church in eastern Europe, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. He taught philosophy for a time at the imperial university and was sent by Patriarch Ignatius on one occasion to the Arabian caliph's court as a member of a delegation to discuss theology with the Moslems.

In the meantime Methodius had left government service and entered a monastery in Bithynia east of Constantinople. In 856 Constantine also decided to withdraw from the active life of a scholar-churchman and joined Methodius in the same monastery. The brothers' solitude lasted only 4 years. In 860 they were sent by Patriarch Ignatius to assure the Christian faith of the Khazars in Russia, who were wavering in the face of strong Jewish and Moslem influence. When they were on their return journey, Constantine discovered what he believed to be the bones of an early Christian pope, St. Clement of Rome, and carried them with him for the rest of his life.

From the time they were boys in Thessalonica, the brothers could speak Slavic. When the Moravian king Ratislav, unhappy with the Latin Christianity preached in his Slavic country by Charlemagne's German missionaries, turned to Constantinople for help, Constantine and Methodius were again summoned from their monastery and sent by Emperor Michael II to Moravia. This mission was to be their lifetime concern. In 863 the brothers reached the country (today the Czech Republic) and immediately began teaching and preaching in the Slavic language of the people. They started a school to train young men for the priest-hood. They conducted the liturgical services in Slavic and eventually developed a special Slavic alphabet in order to put the Bible and the liturgy in writing.

For 5 years Constantine and Methodius worked steadily to establish Christian worship according to the forms and language of the Moravian people. They inevitably clashed with the German missionaries, who were committed to the Latin form of Christianity. The two brothers were invited to Rome in 868 by Pope Nicholas I to explain their work. The Pope was so impressed by their success that he made them both bishops and, contrary to expectation, authorized them to carry on their ministry in Slavic. Constantine, however, had no further desire for the active missionary life. He entered a monastery in Rome in 869 and took a new name, Cyril, as a sign of his new life. Fifty days later he died.

Methodius returned to Moravia and continued his efforts for 16 years more. An incident in 871 extended his influence still further. The visiting king of Bohemia was invited to dine with the Moravian king. The guest found that he and his entourage were considered heathens and were expected to sit on the floor, while the host and Bishop Methodius, as Christians, were being served at a raised table. He asked what he could expect to gain by becoming a Christian. Bishop Methodius said, "A place higher than all kings and princes." That was enough. The king asked to be baptized, along with his wife and entire retinue, and returned to Bohemia to encourage many of his people to accept the Christian faith.

Methodius's difficulties with the Latin clergy continued to plague his later years. He was summoned to Rome again in 878 by Pope John VIII. This time the influence of the Latinists was stronger. The Pope decreed that Methodius must first read the Mass in Latin, then translate it into Slavic. The bishop returned, subdued. He died in 885. Cyril and Methodius were considered heroes by the people and were formally recognized as saints of the Roman Catholic Church in 1881.

Further Reading on Saints Cyril and Methodius

Most of the works on Cyril and Methodius are in Slavic or Russian. There are several helpful books in English, however. Francis Dvornik, The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization (1956), describes the brothers' influence on the life and language of the people among whom they worked. Zdenek Radslav Dittrich, Christianity in Great-Moravia (1962), is a scholarly study of the history of the churches they helped found, and Matthew Spinka, A History of Christianity in the Balkans (1968), places their missionary results in the context of the history of eastern Europe.

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