Bishops and Confessors; Equals to the Apostles; Patrons of Europe; Apostles to the Slavs
Born 826 or 827 and 815 Thessalonica, Byzantine Empire present-day Greece
Died 14 February 869 and 6 April 885
Feast day: February 14
Saints Cyril and Methodius were brothers who brought Orthodoxy to the Slavic peoples of central Europe in the ninth century. In preparation for their mission to the Slavs they devised the Glagolitic alphabet to translate the Holy Scriptures and other Christian writings into what is now called Old Church Slavonic. Glagolitic later developed into the Cyrillic alphabet which is now used in a number of Slavic languages. The two brothers have been recognized as saints, equals to the apostles, for their missionary work. Many details of their lives have been obscured by the legends that have arisen about them.
Constantine later Cyril and Michael later Methodius were born early in the 9th century in Thessalonika into a senatorial family. The years of their birth are uncertain. Constantine, the elder of the two, may have been born in 826, while Methodius is believed to have been born in 827. Their father, Leon, was Drungarios of the Byzantine Roman Thema of Thessalonika, whose jurisdiction included the Slavs of Macedonia. Their mother is believed to have been Slavic. Being raised in an area with both Greek and Slavic speakers endowed the brothers with a good knowledge of the two languages. As befitting their family's position, they were well educated.
At a young age the brothers lost their father and they were raised under the protection of their uncle Theoctistos, who was a powerful official in the Byzantine government, responsible for postal services and the diplomatic relations of the empire. In 843, he invited Constantine to Constantinople to continue his studies at the university there. He was ordained a deacon in Constantinopole. As Constantine was knowledgeable in theology and had a good command of the Arabic and Hebrew languages, his first state mission to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil was to discuss the principle of the Holy Trinity with Arab theologians and thus improve the Empire's diplomatic relations with the Abbasid Caliphate.
Theoctistos also arranged a position as an official in the Slavic administration of the empire for Michael. He soon went to the monastery at Mount Olympus where he was tonsured with the name Methodius.
In 860, Emperor Michael III and Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, sent the brothers to the Khagan of the Khazars on a missionary expedition in an attempt to forestall the Khagan from embracing Judaism. The mission was unsuccessful as the Khagan chose Judaism for his people, but many people embraced Christianity. Upon their return, Constantine was appointed professor of philosophy in the university.
Then in 862 the two brothers were invited by Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia to preach Christianity in his domains. This request was a fallout of the efforts of the Slavic princes in central Europe attempting to maintain their independence from their Germanic neighbors. Rastislav was looking for Christian missionaries to replace those from the Germans. In the end this mission would continue for the rest of the brothers' lives, as the brothers were dedicated to the idea that Christianity should be presented to the people in their native languages as was the practice in the East. To accomplish their work they developed the Glagolitic alphabet, the precursor of the Cyrillic alphabet, and began the translation of the Scriptures and Christian literature into the Slavic language.
The German clergy had used their liturgical language, Latin, as a measure to maintain their influence in Moravia and therefore were unhappy with the work of Constantine and Methodius, and they used this difference to attack the brothers. After laboring for about four years, the brothers were called by Nicholas I to appear in Rome to defend their work. The area in which they worked was within the jurisdiction of Rome. However, before their arrival, in 869 Nicholas died and was succeeded by Adrian II. After Adrian was convinced of the orthodoxy of the brothers, he approved their use of Slavonic in their church services and commended their work. He then consecrated Methodius bishop. Constantine took monastic vows in a Greek monastery in Rome. He was given the name Cyril, the name by which he is now commonly known. Cyril was not to return to Moravia as he died shortly thereafter. The date of Cyril's death is uncertain, but appears to have been shortly after his consecration, both perhaps in February 869, with his death most probably on February 1
Cyril and Methodius must have often wondered, as we do today, how God could bring spiritual meaning out of worldly concerns. Every mission they went on, every struggle they fought was a result of political battles, not spiritual, and yet the political battles are forgotten and their work lives on in the Slavic peoples and their literature.
Tradition tells us that the brothers Methodius and Constantine (he did not take the name Cyril until just before his death) grew up in Thessalonica as sons of a prominent Christian family. Because many Slavic people settled in Thessalonica, it is assumed Constantine and Methodius were familiar with the Slavic language. Methodius, the older of the two brothers, became an important civil official who would have needed to know Slavonic. He grew tired of worldly affairs and retired to a monastery. Constantine became a scholar and a professor known as "the Philosopher" in Constantinople. In 860 Constantine and Methodius went as missionaries to what is today the Ukraine.
When the Byzantine emperor decided to honor a request for missionaries by the Moravian prince Rastislav, Methodius and Constantine were the natural choices; they knew the language, they were able administrators, and had already proven themselves successful missionaries.
But there was far more behind this request and the response than a desire for Christianity. Rastislav, like the rest of the Slav princes, was struggling for independence from German influence and invasion. Christian missionaries from the East, to replace missionaries from Germany, would help Rastislav consolidate power in his own country, especially if they spoke the Slavonic language.
Constantine and Methodius were dedicated to the ideal of expression in a people's native language. Throughout their lives they would battle against those who saw value only in Greek or Latin. Before they even left on their mission, tradition says, Constantine constructed a script for Slavonic a script that is known today as glagolithic. Glagolithic is considered by some as the precursor of cyrillic which named after him.
Arriving in 863 in Moravia, Constantine began translating the liturgy into Slavonic. In the East, it was a normal procedure to translate liturgy into the vernacular. As we know, in the West the custom was to use Greek and later Latin, until Vatican II. The German hierarchy, which had power over Moravia, used this difference to combat the brothers' influence. The German priests didn't like losing their control and knew that language has a great deal to do with independence.
So when Constantine and Methodius went to Rome to have the Slav priesthood candidates ordained (neither was a bishop at the time), they had to face the criticism the Germans had leveled against them. But if the Germans had motives that differed from spiritual concerns, so did the pope. He was concerned about the Eastern church gaining too much influence in the Slavic provinces. Helping Constantine and Methodius would give the Roman Catholic church more power in the area. So after speaking the brothers, the pope approved the use of Slavonic in services and ordained their pupils.
Constantine never returned to Moravia. He died in Rome after assuming the monastic robes and the name Cyril on February 14, 869. Legend tells us that his older brother was so griefstricken, and perhaps upset by the political turmoil, that he intended to withdraw to a monastery in Constantinople. Cyril's dying wish, however, was that Methodius return to the missionary work they had begun.
He couldn't return to Moravia because of political problems there, but another Slavic prince, Kocel, asked for him, having admired the brothers' work in translating so much text into Slavonic. Methodius was allowed by the pope to continue saying Mass and administering baptism in the Slavonic tongue. Methodius was finally consecrated bishop, once again because of politics -- Kocel knew that having a Slavonic bishop would destroy the power of the Salzburg hierarchy over his land. Methodius became bishop of Sirmium, an ancient see near Belgrade and given power over Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, and Moravian territory.
The German bishops accused him of infringing on their power and imprisoned him in a monastery. This lasted until Germany suffered military defeats in Moravia. At that time the pope intervened and Methodius returned to his diocese in triumph at the same time the Germans were forced to recognize Moravian independence. There was a loss involved to appease the Germans a little, the pope told Methodius he could no longer celebrate liturgy in the vernacular.
In 879 Methodius was summoned to Rome to answer German charges he had not obeyed this restriction. This worked against the Germans because it gave Methodius a chance to explain how important it was to celebrate the liturgy in the tongue people understood. Instead of condemning him, the pope gave him permission to use Slavonic in the Mass, in Scripture reading, and in the office. He also made him head of the hierarchy in Moravia.
The criticism never went away, but it never stopped Methodius either. It is said that he translated almost all the Bible and the works of the Fathers of the Church into Slavonic before he died on April 6 in 884.
Within twenty years after his death, it would seem like all the work of Cyril and Methodius was destroyed. Magyar invasions devastated Moravia. And without the brothers to explain their position, use of the vernacular in liturgy was banned. But politics could never prevail over God's will. The disciples of Cyril and Methodius who were driven out of Moravia didn't hide in a locked room. The invasion and the ban gave them a chance to go to other Slavic countries. The brothers' work of spreading Christ's word and translating it into Slavonic continued and laid the foundation for Christianity in the region.