Christianity has always been a family affair: as St. Andrew, who told his brother Simon (Peter) about Jesus, and the brothers James and John were among the leaders of the early Church, this sibling sharing of the Christian life continued with the holy unmercenaries Ss. Cosmas and Damian, with the monastics Ss. Benedict and Scholastica, and with the missionaries Ss. Cyril and Methodius.
These latter brothers, who were born in 825 and 827 in Thessalonica, combined their zeal and their particular talents to spread Christianity to the Slavic peoples. Methodius, the elder, first spent more than ten years as a government official in a Slavic territory, giving him the opportunity to perfect his knowledge of the language of that culture. After this, he entered a monastery on Mt. Olympus and devoted himself to a life of prayer.
Meanwhile, his younger brother, named Constantine by his parents, had gained a reputation as a philosopher and intellectual in Constantinople. The Patriarch ordained him deacon and made him librarian of the Patriarchate, giving him opportunities for representing the Patriarchate in diplomatic and intellectual capacities. One of these occasions was a trip to Baghdad, where Constantine debated with the leading Islamic scholars of the day. He then joined his brother in the monastery, where he, too, devoted himself to constant prayer.
Soon, however, God called the brothers out of this quiet life of contemplation and into the mission field. Kagan, the king of the Khazarite people (who lived to the Northeast of the black Sea) appealed to the Byzantine Emperor Michael for instruction in the Christian faith. The Emperor sent Constantine and Methodius and the result was the baptism of more than two hundred people! Another result of this missionary endeavor was that the brothers began creating an alphabet for the Slavic language which, until then, had no written form.
The next missionary endeavor of the brothers was much more complicated and involved both religious and political entanglements. Prince Rastislav of Moravia desired to make an alliance with the Byzantine Empire and he wanted to limit the activities of the Frankish missionaries in Moravia. These missionaries had been preaching Christianity to the people for more than fifty years, but they used only Latin in the Liturgy and other celebrations of the Church. The Prince realized that using the local spoken language of the people would be a far more effective tool in their conversion, so he asked the Emperor and the Patriarch for a teacher who knew his language, and Constantine and Methodius were sent.
Their success was great. In addition to many new converts to the Church, the brothers continued perfecting the Slavic alphabet, thus providing a way for the people to continue their own study. They began to translate into Slavic the Holy Scriptures and the services of the Church – including the Liturgy of St. Peter (known to us as the Liturgy of St. Gregory the Great) because the people were already familiar with this Western rite.
The repercussions of their success were understandably great. Although the brothers had come to this area by invitation of the local ruler, the tradition among Christians had been that the first missionaries to reach a pagan people would thereafter provide religious leadership and oversight until the establishment of a native hierarchy. At first Constantine and Methodius did not proseletize, but the number of people who switched allegiances and customs soon made it appear that they were “stealing sheep.” Additionally, the Franks were sending armies to conquer the people politically, so much dissension developed.
Constantine and Methodius traveled to Rome, seeking ordination for some of their newly-trained Moravian disciples. On their way, the brothers received condemnation for their “innovation” of using a “barbaric” tongue for worship rather than one of the three ancient languages: Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. In defending their practice, Constantine reminded the accusers of the day of Pentecost, as recorded in the Book of Acts, when the Holy Spirit sanctified all the languages spoken by man.
Arriving in Rome, the missionaries were received graciously by Pope Hadrian II, who blessed their endeavors, gave their linguistic practices his approval, ordained Methodius and their Slavic disciples to the priesthood, and had the Slavic Liturgy celebrated in four Roman churches. The brothers had also brought to Rome the relics of the Roman Pope St. Clement, recovered from the Black Sea, and there was great rejoicing at the placing of the relics of this beloved saint in the Church of St. Clement.
With the newly-ordained native clergy to continue the missionary work among the Slavs, the brothers could now return home and resume the life of prayer and contemplation. But there was great controversy in Constantinople over the legitimacy of the Patriarchate – with Photius and his rival, Ignatius, engaged in a great power struggle. The missionaries remained in Rome in a monastery, awaiting more peaceful times for their return. But it was not to be so for Constantine. He became ill and, desiring to die as a monk, he took final vows and the new name, Cyril. Upon his death, as he had requested, he was buried in the Church of St. Clement, near the recovered relics of the Roman saint.
While Methodius was still grieving over the loss of his brother, the Pope received a request from Prince Kocel of Pannonia for the missionary teacher to return to Moravia. So Methodius was ordained Archbishop by the Pope and was given a papal letter expressing approval for his missionary work and the liturgical use of the vernacular.
The next several years were ones of increasing hostility, tension, and political and religious confrontation for Methodius. These included being tried by Frankish bishops and exiled to Swabia, being returned to Moravia 2 ½ years later at the insistence of Pope Hadrian, and then being told to cease the use of the Slavic language by his successor, Pope John VIII (an order which Methodius chose to ignore). We next see in this great drama one of the first instances of the filioque controversy. The Frankish bishops had adopted this innovation from the Spanish and, perhaps in ignorance of its theological error and lack of historical authenticity, they now accused Methodius of omitting it! Once again, the pope was called upon to arbitrate and this time, his judgement was with Methodius. He accused the Franks of theological novelty and reminded those bishops of the proper form for the Creed. Pope John also reconsidered Methodius’ use of Slavic and required of him only that the Gospel be first read in Latin before a Slavic rendering. Methodius was now free to return to Moravia and continue his missionary work, extending it among the Czechs and the Poles.
Methodius had by now trained many native men for ordination, and this body of disciples was prepared to continue the work of the two brothers among the Slavic people. Methodius appointed Gorazd, a Moravian scholar versed in Slavic and Latin, to succeed him as the leader of the mission work. Saint Methodius passed into rest eternal on April 6, 885, surely hearing our Lord say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!”
Gorazd and the other disciples were immediately met with persecution, imprisonment, and exile at the hands of the Franks. But out of this historical tragedy came the blessing of the conversion of the Bulgarians, the Serbs, and eventually the Russians, as the disciples of Ss. Cyril and Methodius moved into other Slavic lands, preaching the love of Christ and teaching the now written Slavic language for the education of future generations.
Today, Orthodox and Roman Catholics alike revere the brothers Cyril and Methodius as saints. We praise God for their untiring efforts in evangelizing, their use of their particular linguistic skills in teaching and preaching the word, and their zeal for the faith in the midst of destructive and divisive political and religious practices and attitudes. May we follow the example of the holy brothers Ss. Cyril and Methodius and, through their intercessions, may all come to the fullness of the Orthodox faith.
Sources: Missionaries, Monks and Martyrs: Making Disciples of All Nations, Luke Veronis; New Apostles of Christ, Janene Hatch; Orthodox Saints, Vol. 2, George Poulos; A Short Guide to St. Clement’s, Rome, Leonard Boyle.