top of page

Saints Cyril & Methodius

These brothers, natives of Thessalonika, are venerated as the apostles of the Southern Slavs and the fathers of Slavonic literary culture. Cyril, the younger of them, was baptized Constantine and assumed the name by which he is usually known only shortly before his death, when he received the habit of a monk. At an early age he was sent to Constantinople, where he studied at the imperial university under Leo the Grammarian and Photius. Here he learned all the profane sciences but no theology; however he was ordained deacon (priest probably not til later) and in due course took over the chair of Photius, gaining for himself a great reputation, evidenced by the epithet "the Philosopher". For a time he retired to a religious house, but in 861 he was sent by the emperor, Michael III, on a religio-political mission to the ruler of the judaized Khazars between the Dnieper and the Volga. This he carried out with success, though the number of converts he made to Christianity among the Khazars has doubtless been much exaggerated. The elder brother, Methodius, who, after being governor of one of the Slav colonies in the Opsikion province, had become a monk, took part in the mission to the Khazars, and on his return to Greece was elected abbot of an important monastery.

In 862 there arrived in Constantinople an ambassador charged by Rostislav, prince of Moravia, to ask that the emperor would send him missionaries capable of teaching his people in their own language. Behind this request was the desire of Rostislav to draw nearer to Byzantium as an insurance against the powerful German neighbours on his west, and this was a good opportunity for the Eastern emperor to counterbalance the influence of the Western emperor in those parts, where German missionaries were already active. It favoured too the ecclesiastical politics of Photius, now patriarch of Constantinople, who decided that Cyril and Methodius were most suitable for the work: for they were learned men, who knew Slavonic, and the first requirement was the provision of characters in which the Slav tongue might be written. The characters now called "cyrillic", from which are derived the present Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian letters, were invented from the Greek capitals, perhaps by the followers of St. Cyril; the "glagolitic" alphabet, formerly wrongly attributed to St. Jerome, in which the Slav-Roman liturgical books of certain Yugoslav Catholics are printed, may that prepared for this occasion by Cyril himself, or, according to the legend, directly revealed by God.
In 862 the two brothers set out with a number of assistants and came to the court of Rostislav; they were well received and at once got to work. But the position was very difficult. The new missionaries made free use of the vernacular in their preaching and ministrations, and this made immediate appeal to the local people. To the German clergy this was objectionable, and their oopposition was strengthened when the Emperor Louis the German forced Rostislav to take an oath of fealty to him. The Byzantine missionaries, armed with their pericopes from the Scriptures and liturgical hymns in Slavonic, pursued their way with much success, but were soon handicapped by their lack of a bishop to ordain more priests. The German prelate, the bishop of Passau, would not do it, and Cyril therefore determined to seek help elsewhere, presumably from Constantinople whence he came.

On their way the brothers arrived in Venice. It was at a bad moment. Photius at Constantinople had incurred excommunication; the East was under suspicion; the protegesof the Eastern emperor and their liturgical use of a new tongue were vehemently criticized. One source says that the pope, St. Nicholas I, sent for the strangers. In any case to Rome they came, bringing with them the alleged relics of Pope St. Clement, which St. Cyril had recovered when in the Crimea on his way back from the Khazars. Pope Nicholas in the meantime had died, but his successor, Adrian II, warmly welcomed the bearers of so great a gift. He examined their cause, and he gave judgement: Cyril and Methodius were to receive episcopal consecration, their neophytes were to be ordained, the use of the liturgy in Slavonic was approved.
Although in the office of the Western church both brothers are referred to as bishops, it is far from certain that Cyril was in fact consecrated. For while still in Rome he died, on February 14, 869. The "Italian legend" of the saints says that on Cyril's death Methodius went to Pope Adrian and told him, "When we left our father's house for the country in which, with God's help, we have laboured, the last wish of our mother was that, should either of us die, the other would bring back the body for decent burial in our monastery. I ask the help of your Holiness for me to do this." The pope was willing; but it was represented to him that "It is not fitting that we should allow the body of so distinguished a man to be taken away, one who has enriched our church and city with relics, who by God's power has attracted distant nations towards us, who has been called to his reward from this place. So famous a man should be buried in a famous place in so famous a city." And so it was done. St. Cyril was buried with great pomp in the church of San Clemente on the Coelian, wherein the relics of St. Clement had been enshrined.
St. Methodius now took up his brother's leadership. Having been consecrated, he returned, bearing a letter from the Holy See recommending him as a man of "exact understanding and orthodoxy". Kosel, prince of Pannonia, having asked that the ancient archdiocese of Sirmium (now Mitrovitsa) be revived, Methodius was made metropolitan and the boundaries of his charge extended to the borders of Bulgaria. But the papal approval and decided actions did not intimidate the Western clergy there, and the situation in Moravia had now changed. Rostislav's nephew, Svatopluk, had allied himself with Carloman of Bavaria and driven his uncle out. In 870 Methodius found himself haled before a synod of German bishops and interned in a leaking cell. Only after two years could the pope, now John VIII, get him released; and then John judged it prudent to withdraw the permission to use Slavonic ("a barbarous language", he called it), except for the purpose of preaching. At the same time he reminded the Germans that Pannonia and the disposition of sees throughout Illyricum belonged of old to the Holy See.

During the following years St. Methodius continued his work of evangelization in Moravia, but he made an enemy of Svatopluk, whom he rebuked for the wickedness of his life. Accordingly in 878 the archbishop was delated to the Holy See both for continuing to conduct divine worship in Slavonic and for heresy, in that he omitted the words "and the Son" from the creed (at that time these words had not been introduced everywhere in the West, and not in Rome). John VIII summoned him to Rome. Methodius was able to convince the pope both of his orthodoxy and of the desirability of the Slavonic liturgy, and John again conceded it, with certain reservations, for God, "who made the three principal languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, made others also for his honour and glory". Unfortunately, in accordance with the wishes of Svatopluk, the pope also nominated to the see of Nitra, which as suffragan to Sirmium, a German priest called Wiching, an implacable opponent of Methodius. This unscrupulous prelate continued to persecute his metropolitan, even to the extent of forging pontifical documents. After his death, Wiching obtained the archepiscopal see, banished the chief disciples of his predecessor, and undid much of his work in Moravia.
During the last four years of his life, according to the "Pannonian legend", St. Methodius completed the Slavonic translation of the Bible (except the books of Machabees) and also of the Nomokanon, a compilation of Byzantine ecclesiastical and civil law. This suggests that circumstances were preventing him from devoting all his time to missionary and episcopal concerns; in other words, he was fighting a losing battle with the German influence. He died, probably at Stare Mesto (Velehrad), worn out by his apostolic labours and the opposition of those who thought them misdirected, on April 6, 884. His funeral service was carried out in Greek, Slavonic and Latin: "The people, carrying tapers, came together in huge numbers; men and women, big and little, rich and poor, free men and slaves, widows and orphans, natives and foreigners, sick and well - all were there. For Methodiuis had been all things to all men that he might lead them all to Heaven."

The feast of SS. Cyril and Methodius, always observed in the land of their mission, was extended to the whole Western church in 1880 by Pope Leo XIII. As orientals who worked in close co-operation with Rome they are regarded as particularly suitable patrons of church unity and of works to further the reunion of the dissident Slav churches; they are venerated alike by Catholic Czechs and Slovaks and Croats and Orthodox Serbs and Bulgars. According to Slavonic usage they are named in the preparation of the Byzantine Mass.

- Butler's "Lives of the Saints"
bottom of page