People, Look East: Apostles to the Slavs

Today, the churches of the Byzantine tradition — Catholic and Orthodox — commemorate the life and work of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. 

Recognized as “equal to the apostles” and as the “apostles to the Slavs,” the great missionary brothers Cyril and Methodius were born in the city of Thessalonica in the early ninth century. They dedicated their lives to scholarship and holiness in the great city of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, a realm we now call Byzantine — a derivative of Byzantium, the port where the emperor Constantine had built his “New Rome” in the year 325 A.D. 

In the year 862, the Byzantine emperor received a petition from the prince of Great Moravia — which covered much of the territory of the contemporary states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia — to send Slav-speaking missionaries to work among the prince’s subjects. While the Christian faith had already been received by his Moravian subjects, the Germanic missionaries who had introduced it had advocated closer ties with Moravia’s Germanic enemies. Alarmed, the Moravian prince reached out to the Byzantine emperor, who quickly dispatched Cyril and Methodius to counter the influence of the powerful Germanic hierarchs. 

Cyril devised an alphabet for the Slavonic vernacular, translated Scripture and the liturgical rites of the church into Slavonic (it remains unclear whether these liturgies were of the Byzantine or Latin rites), and transcribed the first Slavic code of civil law. Despite receiving support from the papacy, the brothers’ work generated hostility among the Germanic bishops, who eventually removed the Moravian prince, drove Cyril and Methodius from Moravia, and banished their disciples.

A statue of Sts. Cyril and Methodius stands at the summit of the Czech Republic’s Radhost Mountain, where a traditional wooden chapel dedicated to the two holy brothers serves as a popular pilgrimage site. (photo: Forance/Adobe Stock)

The brothers traveled to Rome in 868 to seek guidance from the pope, eager to prevent any further conflicts between the churches of Rome and Constantinople. Cyril died in Rome in 869 — acclaimed by the Romans as a saint. His brother Methodius, ordained to the episcopacy by the pope and charged to continue his mission among the Slavs, died in Moravia in 885. 

Two of their disciples, Clement and Naum, eventually found refuge in the realm of the Bulgars. There, they furthered the cultural, linguistic and spiritual works of Cyril and Methodius. In the Balkan cities of Ohrid and Preslav, Clement and Naum presided over literary schools, where they translated texts into Slavonic and reformed Cyril’s alphabet, renaming it Cyrillic in honor of their teacher. Over time, this alphabet became known as Old Church Slavonic, and it is the precursor of the alphabet used today by Belarussians, Bulgarians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Russians, Serbs and Ukrainians.

Truly, the evangelical zeal of Cyril and Methodius in spreading the Gospel among the Slavic peoples of Europe earns them the title of apostles and, in the words of Pope John Paul II in 1980, “co-patrons of Europe.”

Perhaps what is most important about Sts. Cyril and Methodius today is their dedication to the unity of the church. Working during a period of increasing division between the churches of the East and West, these tireless disciples of Jesus humbled themselves, seeking counsel and direction, subordinating their own mission for the sake of that unity. May we mirror their humility as examples of unity and love. 

Michael J.L. La Civita is CNEWA’s Communications Director.

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