Apostles to the Slavs: Sts. Cyril and Methodius (photo: Michael L. Tutko)
Illuminated musical score for a Slavonic hymn. (photo: Jim Coursen)
Pope John Paul II recently proclaimed Sts. Cyril and Methodius co-patrons of Europe with St. Benedict. Many wondered why the Holy Father enlisted the apostles of the Slavs as intercessors for the modern world along with the renowned patriarch of Western monasticism. Was it because the Pope, himself a Slav, wished to draw the attention of the faithful to the Slavic component of Christian civilization? Perhaps. Still, a re-telling of the story of the saintly brothers will reveal the broader scope of the Popes action.
Thessalonika at the beginning of the ninth century was the northern frontier city of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. The region boasted a large Slavic population, and many of the citizens were bilingual, speaking both Greek and the local Slavic dialect. Here in Thessalonika in 827 A.D., a boy named Constantine was born to a noble family. He was a gifted intellectual and soon made his way to the capital, Constantinople, to pursue his studies under the brilliant St. Photius the Great, Ecumenical Patriarch and most gifted scholar of his age. Though Constantine found the highest public offices within his reach, he desired instead to become a priest. His retiring nature led him to enter a monastery after his ordination. In religious life he took the name Cyril.
Cyrils brother Methodius, younger by twelve years, possessed a very different nature. As Cyril was the introspective scholar, Methodius was the man of action. He too was ordained to the priesthood.
When Duke Rostislav requested missionaries from Constantinople to evangelize Moravia, the Emperor immediately thought of the two brothers. They had already had missionary experience among the Khazars and Muslims, and since they came from Thessalonika, they spoke a form of Slavic, though they themselves were Greek.
Their apostolic efforts in Rostislavs realm met with great success. Until then, the Moravians had known Christianity only as the religion of the war-like Germans on their Western borders, who wished to conquer as well as convert them. Cyril and Methodius sought only to preach the Gospel. Soon the mission expanded until the holy brothers faced the necessity of training Moravian candidates for Holy Orders. Here they followed Eastern practice, and translated the Holy Scriptures and liturgical texts into the vernacular of the place. Since the Slavic dialects had not yet been systematized into written languages, St. Cyril devised an alphabet suited to their phonetic requirements. To this day the Eastern and Southern Slavs make use of this alphabet, known as Cyrillic.
Once the brothers had trained the future priests, they had to find a way to have them ordained. Since they were subjects of the Emperor and the Patriarch at Constantinople, they resolved to return to the capital. The easiest way to make the journey was by the sea route from Venice. Here they are found in 869 A.D.
Meanwhile, their German neighbors had been watching the events in next-door Moravia with a good deal of chagrin. In particular, the Germans took violent exception to the vernacular celebration of the liturgy. They dutifully reported this irregularity to Rome.
When the brothers arrived in Venice, they received an invitation from Pope St. Nicholas I to come to Rome. Presumably, the Pope had read the German denunciation and had also heard of the spectacular success of the missionaries, and wanted to see for himself.
Ecclesiastical politics may also have played a part. Rome and Constantinople had begun quarreling over jurisdictional matters. Perhaps the Pope wished to cement the loyalties of the newly-Christianized Slavs to the West.
By the time Cyril and Methodius arrived in Rome, St. Nicholas had died, but his successor, Pope Adrian II, welcomed them, praising their work and enthroning their translation of the Gospels on the altar of St. Peter. Here, with great pleasure, he assisted at the Divine Liturgy served according to the Slavonic usage.
While the brothers were in Rome, Cyril died, but the Pope consecrated Methodius Archbishop of the Slavs, and bade him return with a testimonial letter confirming the orthodoxy of his approach.
In the meantime, Duke Rostislav had been betrayed to the Germans by his nephew, Svatopluk, who then usurped the ruling power. He wished to align himself with his German allies even in religious matters, so he began to undo the good work of the holy brothers by forbidding the Slavonic liturgy. He arrested St. Methodius upon his return and imprisoned him for three years in a dungeon. An unceasing propaganda war induced a later Pope, John VIII, to forbid the Slavonic use. But when the Pope discovered the truth, he ordered St. Methodius released from prison, and he threatened to excommunicate the guilty parties if they did not repair the injury.
Unfortunately, the Pope neglected to rescind his anti-Slavonic injunction. So when Methodius was finally liberated he was in a predicament: obey the papal directive and destroy his mission, or ignore it and continue on as before. The approval of Pope Adrian II and the unanimous tradition of the Christian East were in his favor, so Methodius continued to evangelize his people with the vernacular Scriptures and liturgy.
Naturally, as a Byzantine, Methodius did not add and from the Son to the words of the Creed, Who proceeds from the Father, as the Latins had begun recently to do. His enemies eagerly seized upon this; they charged him with heresy and again denounced him in Rome.
St. Methodius had no difficulty in clearing himself of all charges. Pope John VIII reversed his former prohibition and formally approved the Methodian approach. But in order to placate Svatopluk and his German allies, he consecrated a German monk named Wiching as Archbishop Methodius coadjutor. Unknowingly, by this act, the Pope had signed the death warrant for the Moravian mission, for Wiching was the very one who had instigated the doubts of Methodius orthodoxy. He lost no time in causing further trouble for Methodius.
Pope John had written a letter to Svatopluk in which he withdrew his prohibition and approved the Slavonic usage. He asked Methodius to deliver the letter and he explained its contents, but he did not give it to the archbishop to read. The unscrupulous Wiching promptly bribed corrupt secretaries to forge a copy of the letter. The two documents used similar terms but contradicted each other at key points: where the genuine letter authorized the vernacular, the forgery prohibited it entirely. It was made to appear that Wiching was independent of Methodius jurisdiction, and that Wiching was responsible for the execution of the Popes decrees.
When they arrived home, Wiching quickly presented his sham epistle to Svatopluk. The civil authorities fell into the trap and rejected Methodius. Bitterly disappointed, the saint wrote a long letter to the Pope, explaining his grief. The Pope answered with a vague reply, nevertheless insisting that he had entrusted the authentic decree to Methodius alone. Svatopluk at last realized that he had been duped, and repudiated Wiching. Methodius excommunicated and exiled him in 881.
After four years of relative peace, Methodius died at Velehrad, in modern Czechoslovakia. To this day his tomb attracts devout pilgrims.
There remains one final act in the story. After Pope John VIII died, his opponents returned to favor. Once restored to power, they began rifling the papal archives, destroying incriminating documents. In this way all the documents relating to the period of Methodius exoneration were destroyed. Wiching heard of this, insinuated himself once again into the good graces of the Moravian court, and made his way to Rome with his old forged letter. When he discovered that the true document was missing, he duped the new Pope, Stephen V, into approving his forgery as the original. Upon returning to Moravia, Wiching destroyed every trace of the Methodian mission, driving the saints followers into exile.
Despite his treachery, Wiching did not succeed in stamping out the Slavonic tradition. Methodius disciples made their way to Bulgaria, where their work flourished. A century later, St. Vladimir of Kiev asked for missionaries to Christianize the Eastern Slavs. The descendants of Methodius followers were able to bring Christianity in a Slavic form to those who would one day make up the Catholic and Orthodox faithful of the Russian and Ukrainian Churches. Today over 75,000,000 Christians use the Methodian translation in celebrating the Divine Mysteries.
Pope John Paul II has entrusted the sanctification of Europe to two heroic Greek saints who spent their lives evangelizing the Slavs. By his pronouncement, the Holy Father corrects the myopic view that Europe and Western Catholicism are synonymous. John Paul, himself an Eastern European, surely wishes to remind us that when we ignore Eastern Christianity, we overlook a precious inheritance from the time when Christian East and West, though always different, were harmonius and complementary in their diversity.
The tortuous route which the saintly apostles to the Slavs had to travel in order to shine the light of the Gospel suggests that the road to reunion will not be free from obstacles. And yet we have only to reflect: Ex Oriente Lux Light comes from the East. St. Benedict formulated his rule for monks on the basis of the writings of the Eastern Fathers, and the Slavs were evangelized by two Byzantine saints who defended the Eastern way against all odds. Surely, Pope John Paul II is asking the Western world to seek in the evangelical and patristic East the means to restore to man the glory that was his when God planted a Garden in the East, in Eden.
Father Romanos was ordained a priest in the Melkite-Greek Catholic Church on May 11, the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.