While we might associate Feb. 14 with St. Valentine, in the Roman calendar it is also the feast day of two of the most important men in the history of Eastern Europe.
Sts. Cyril (826–869) and Methodius (815–885), recognized by St. John Paul II as patron saints of Europe alongside St. Benedict of Nursia in 1980, ministered to the then-pagan Slavs who had settled in much of Eastern Europe prior to the ninth century. Not only did these brothers in both blood and faith bring the true faith to these pagan peoples, but more importantly they gave the Slavs a written language into which the Scriptures could be translated, laying the groundwork for immense cultural development within the cultures of the different Slavic peoples as a whole.
These brothers being Greek in origin, I took the opportunity recently to visit the Saint Spyridon Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Worcester, Massachusetts, and spoke to Fr. Dimitrios Moraitis, the cathedral’s dean, to discuss the wider implications of Cyril and Methodius in their time as well as our own. Not only were these brothers important as historic missionaries, but they are also emblematic of the similar interests of the Greek and Latin branches of the Christian Church, icons of hope for the modern ecumenical movement. Saint Spyridon Cathedral, notably enough, is home to the Tonna Room, where the first official dialogue between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches since the 1431 Council of Florence occurred in 1965.
The aforementioned Council of Florence stands out as the last time for centuries that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches approached anything resembling reunion. Yet in the centuries leading up to this division between these two great branches of the true faith, we find individuals like Cyril and Methodius who embodied a dedication to evangelization and unity even in spite of increasing factionalism on both sides.
The two brothers had first attempted to convert the Khazars (a Turkic people living in what is today southern European Russia), to Christianity in 860 by request of Byzantine Emperor Michael III. While this mission was ultimately unsuccessful, though it was not before long that the two prominent scholars, skilled in linguistics and wise in theology, were dispatched to Moravia (in modern Czechia) to aid in the Christianization of the Slavic peoples who had settled there.
While there, the brothers chose a different approach to evangelization, and instead of using Latin or Greek, developed the Glagolitic alphabet, providing the Slavs with their first writing system by which the liturgy and nearly the entirety of the Bible was translated within the lifetimes of the brothers. The Glagolitic alphabet would later be modified and improved upon by students of the brothers into the Cyrillic alphabet still used in Russia, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia.
Yet while in Moravia, the brothers faced challenges from Latin-speaking missionaries entering Moravia from what is now Germany, who demanded all liturgy be done in Latin and were opposed to the region falling into the sphere of Byzantine influence.
As a means of resolving this issue, the two brothers were invited to Rome by Pope Nicholas in 867. While there, Cyril entered a monastery where he died in 869, while Methodius was given the title of bishop and was permitted to perform liturgy in Greek at several prominent churches in the city. Treated kindly and highly respected both for his missionary work and impressive intellect, Methodius saw, as Fr. Dimitrios adeptly put it, “a side of the Western Church he had not seen before.” Pope Nicholas as well as his successors, Adrian II and John VIII, all respected Methodius’ mission to the Slavs as the focus of his ministry shifted from Moravia to Pannonia (modern-day Hungary).
After Methodius’ death, tensions between the Greek East and Latin West would continue to escalate as questions over papal authority, the Filioque and linguistic dominance went on without resolution, culminating in the Great Schism of 1054 when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch of Constantinople Michael I excommunicated each other. This, along with other events such as the debacle of the Fourth Crusade and the gradual disintegration of the Byzantine Empire, would result in only difficulties as the two branches of the Church drifted further apart, with efforts made at repairing the rift only begun in 1964, when Patriarch Athenagoras, who himself had been impressed with the ability of Americans to overcome religious differences, agreed with St. Paul VI to lift the mutual excommunications in 1965.
For over 900 years, the Greek and Latin churches were cautious and skeptical of one another, traits which Fr. Dimitrius believed stemmed from “pride and ego, from a desire to win being valued more than mutual understanding.”
Yet Cyril and Methodius, skilled in language and filled with missionary zeal, were more interested in presenting the truth of the world, the glorious reality of Christ’s resurrection, than to be caught up in the tribalistic politics which so often get in the way of mutual agreement. Cyril and Methodius, more than just apostles to the Slavs and pioneering linguists, embodied a dedication to evangelization which proves timelessly impressive and deserving of emulation.
Language, or more importantly the concepts which underly the words we use, is how we not only defend our faith, but reveal it to others. We should hope to emulate these brothers whenever we preach the Gospel, in understanding the differences which stand against us, and using the gift of language to overcome these barriers.