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Ss Cyril and Methodius – patron saints of Europe

Columns

Msgr John Broadbent
2012

altBrothers Ss Cyril and Methodius were born in the ninth century in Thessalonika in Greece. They studied at the imperial university in Constantinople and the emperor later sent them to Moravia to preach the gospel to the Slavs. The king had requested missionaries who could preach in the people’s language.

The brothers picked up Slavonic – the language of most of the area which the Slavs had settled. They became highly proficient in the language and devised an alphabet now called the Cyrillic after St Cyril which is still used in Russian, Serbian and Bulgarian alphabets.

However, Cyril and Methodius ran into a problem with fellow Catholics. German missionaries had already begun evangelising the Slavs and resented these ‘new’ missionaries. The Germans made little effort to learn Slavonic and, as appointees of German princes and counts, often promoted their rulers’ jurisdiction over the Slavs, the subject of bitter resentment. Cyril and Methodius, on the other hand, made great gains particularly as they spoke and said Mass in Slavonic as well as translating the scriptures into the people’s language.

But the saints realised they needed a bishop to coordinate their efforts and the German bishops refused to consecrate one. So the saints moved to pursue this aim. Unfortunately when they reached Venice, they discovered that their patriarch Photius in Constantinople was involved in a vituperative quarrel with the pope in Rome who had excommunicated him.

The saints then proceeded to Rome to Pope St Nicholas I who greeted them joyfully as did many people there, particularly as they brought from the Crimea the relics of St Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome. Nicholas died soon after while examining the testimonials of the saints, but his successor, Adrian II, had the saints consecrated bishops and allowed their converts to be ordained and Slavonic to be used in the liturgy.

Cyril died soon after on February 14, 869. He was buried in the newly erected church of San Clemente in Rome, built to contain the relics.

Methodius returned to the Slavs with a letter from the pope. The German bishops ignored this and in 870 Methodius found himself hauled before a synod of German bishops and imprisoned in a leaking cell for two years. With the slowness of communication in those times, it was two years before the new Pope John VIII had Methodius released and judged it prudent to withdraw the permission to use Slavonic (described as a ‘barbarous language’) in the liturgy. However, he allowed Methodius to preach in Slavonic.

Methodius was however summoned to Rome in 878 for continuing to use Slavonic in the liturgy and for using a different form of the Creed more favoured in the East. This particular translation of the Nicene Creed was at the heart of the great break between the Eastern and Western Church 200 years later. Methodius was cleared of both charges.

During the last four years of his life, Methodius continued to translate the bible into Slavonic.

When Methodius died in 884, his funeral service was carried out in Greek, Slavonic and Latin and attended by huge numbers of people. In this sense he can be seen as a patron of church unity especially between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The feast of the saintly brothers was always observed in the lands of their mission. Pope Leo XIII extended it throughout the Western Church in 1880. Pope John Paul II made the brother saints ‘patrons of Europe’.