May: Cyril and Methodius – What’s behind that funny writing?

Photo: Pres Panayotov/Shutterstock
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Byzantine icon of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Photo: Adam Jan Figel/Shutterstock

For once, you have probably heard of these saints with funny names whose feast day the Eastern churches celebrate on May 11. These two brothers, who hailed from the ancient Greek city of Thessalonica, are well beloved by Catholics of both East and West, as well as by Orthodox Christians and even by many Anglicans and Lutherans.

In 1980, approximately 1,200 years after they walked the earth, St. John Paul II made them co-patrons of Europe, along with St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism. St. John Paul was, in part, trying to heal the divide between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and being a Slav himself, owed a big thank you to Cyril and Methodius. He wrote an encyclical on them in 1985 called Slavorum Apostoli (The Apostles of the Slavs). As encyclicals of JP II  go, this is one of the easy ones; there are only 70 pages and 47 footnotes. For the faint of heart, here is the same info condensed. Think of it as the trailer.

Cyril and Methodius were born Constantine and Michael respectively and enjoyed every advantage that rank, influence, and wealth can bring. They could have followed in their father’s footsteps and been high ranking officials in the imperial court in one of the greatest cities of its time. For a time, Michael did. Yet a contemplative life beckoned and he gave up his career to enter a monastery.

Constantine was a young man of prodigious academic talents. He could speak and write many languages. Yet he eschewed an ambitious career, even an ambitious career in the Church. After a stint as secretary to the patriarch of Constantinople and as librarian of the archives of Hagia Sophia, he asked to be released so he could join his brother in the monastery. There, the dynamic duo chose to live out their days as contemplatives.

Yet God chose differently. First, Cyril was persuaded to teach, which gained him the nickname “The Philosopher.” Then the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople sent him on a mission to the Saracens (Muslims). Then he tried to retreat once more into a monastery but was instead, sent with his brother, to the Crimea. There, a seemingly random thing happened. They discovered the relics of St. Clement, the first-century martyred pope, and brought them to Rome.

If you ever get a chance visit the Basilica of San Clemente, you can venerate his relics. While you are at it, you can thank Cyril and Methodius, who are conveniently located there as well. But anyway, this seemingly random finding of St. Clement’s relics is not random at all. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the brothers’ active service just got even activ-er. Prince Ratislav of Greater Moravia (present-day Czech Republic) sent a message to the Byzantine Emperor Michael. “Many Christian teachers have reached us from Italy, from Greece and from Germany, who instruct us in different ways. But we Slavs … have no one to direct us toward the truth and instruct us in an understandable way.” P.S. Applicant with bishop credentials preferred.

Early form of the Cyrillic alphabet

Glagolitic alphabet that St. Cyril made. Photo: Buncic/Public Domain

Now, the language of the people was Old Slavonic. Who the heck speaks that? There could be only one man for the job, Cyril and his brother, Methodius. Cyril didn’t content himself with learning to speak Old Slavonic so he could talk to the natives of Greater Moravia. He adapted an alphabet to fit the sounds so he could translate the Scriptures into Old Slavonic. He chose for the first letter a cross. Result: an early form of what would eventually develop into Cyrillic, named after him, and still in use today in the Slavic languages.

But no good deed goes unpunished. A banquet in honor of the brothers’ achievements was not forthcoming. Instead rumors of heresy went around. What exactly was behind all that funny writing? It was the duty of the Roman pontiff, Hadrian II, to find out. He sent for the brothers. Fortunately, he had met them before when the brothers had presented him with the relics of St. Clement, so much dearer to him than the usual papal gifts (commemorative plaques) cluttering up his closet.

Coincidence or Providence? Hadrian demonstrated his approval by placing the Old Slavonic Scriptures on the high altar at the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

You’d think that would be the end of the brothers’ trouble but, no. In the first place, Cyril died. With his last words he told Methodius not to let his love for the monastery stop him from teaching. Secondly, Methodius went to prison. If he was wistfully dreaming of solitude, this was not what he had in mind. It was his fellow clerics and the new prince of Greater Moravia who had done the deed. As an Eastern Rite bishop, Methodius was seen as competing with the Latin Rite bishop of the same territory. Plus, celebrating the Divine Liturgy, aka Mass, in Old Slavonic, well, that is just not a true Mass.

“Bull!” said Pope John VIII. Industriae Tuae to be specific. In this papal bull, Pope John upheld his predecessor’s approval of the brothers’ work. Mass in Old Slavonic was a go. And Methodius was free to go. The year was 880.

But even that was not enough. After Methodius died, the brothers’ successors were persecuted. They ended up leaving Greater Moravia. Nevertheless their work took root among the Slavs. To the universal Church, John Paul II’s encyclical holds them up as an example.

Their generous decision to identify themselves with those peoples’ life and traditions, once having purified and enlightened them by Revelation, make Cyril and Methodius true models for all the missionaries who in every period have accepted St. Paul’s invitation to become all things to all people in order to redeem all. (Slavorum Apostoli, 11)

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