February 13, 2017

Memorial of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius

Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius

One of the major changes that occurred as a result of the Second Vatican Council was the celebration of the Liturgy in the vernacular; for many, that meant that going from a Mass in Latin to one in English. At the time, such a move seemed (and indeed was) very innovative. It might be surprising, therefore, to learn that this was not the first time such a thing had happened in the history of the Church. Mass in the vernacular was a contentious topic in 9th century Moravia, and it was championed by two missionary brothers, Saints Cyril and Methodius.

Methodius, the older of the two, and his brother Constantine (who took the name Cyril shortly before his death in 869) were born to a prominent Christian family in a part of Greece that bordered Slavic territory. For a while, Methodius served as an important civil official and would thus have been quite familiar with the language of the Slavic people who lived within his jurisdiction. His younger brother, who eventually earned the sobriquet "the Philosopher," was a scholar and a professor in Constantinople, and would have come by his knowledge of Slavic in that way. It would be their familiarity with this language that would later prove to be both a political and spiritual asset in their work on behalf of God's Church.

By the year 860, both brothers, growing tired of secular life, had withdrawn into a monastery, where they assumed they would spend the rest of their lives. God, however, had other plans. When the Moravian prince Rastislav requested that Christian missionaries come to his country, Cyril and Methodius were the obvious choices. They already knew the language of the people they were called to serve.

As is often the case, there was a catch to all this. Rastislav had an agenda other than simply bringing Christianity to his people; indeed, German missionaries had already been working in Moravia for years when he made his request. It was precisely this German influence that he wished to be rid of, and he concluded that Slavic-speaking missionaries might help him accomplish precisely that goal.

Cyril and Methodius, however, cared little for the political machinations of princes except for how they either helped or hindered their ministry. They were dedicated to bringing the faith to people in a language they could understand. This long held preference for the vernacular was a tradition in the East, whereas in the Western Church, the penchant was to conduct such worship in Greek and Latin.

Cyril had a great deal of work to do before he and his brother could begin to preach and teach in Slavic. To begin with, he had to invent an alphabet, which was probably a kind of hybrid of Greek and a precursor of modern-day Cyrillic, an alphabet that still bears his name. He and his brother then began the arduous task of translating the Gospels, St. Paul’s leers, and other liturgical books into Slavonic. What brought them into conflict with the German hierarchy, however, was their composition of a Slavonic liturgy, a highly irregular practice at the time.

The German bishops did not find much support for their position from Pope Hadrian II, who approved the work the brothers were doing. Unfortunately, his final trip to Rome would be the last Cyril would undertake; he died there on February 14, 869. Methodius returned to Moravia, where the German bishops never ceased opposing him. He persevered in spite of them, translating almost all the Bible and the works of the Fathers into Slavonic before his death in 884.

Saints Cyril and Methodius are venerated in the East and West as the patron saints of the Slavic peoples. In 1980, Saint Pope John Paul II named them co-patrons of Europe along with Saint Benedict. Their feast day is celebrated on February 14th. O God, who enlightened the Slavic peoples through the brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius, grant that our hearts may grasp the words of your teaching, and perfect us as a people of one accord in true faith and right confession. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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