Sep 15, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI : Saints Cyril and Methodius

Online Edition:
September 2009
Vol. XV, No. 6

Pope Benedict XVI : Saints Cyril and Methodius — Language and Transmitting the Faith

“We do not have a teacher who can explain the true faith to us in our own language”

“Every people must integrate the message revealed into its own culture and express its saving truth in its own language”, Pope Benedict XVI said in his address on Saints Cyril and Methodius at his July 17 General Audience.

The “value of language in the transmission of the Revelation” was recognized as key to the mission of these two brothers —called “Apostles to the Slavs” — Pope Benedict said.

The 9th-century missionary brothers were committed to the use of a vernacular language in the liturgy. They translated liturgy and Scripture into the Slavonic language, and developed the Slavonic alphabet. Their feast day is July 7. In 1980, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Saints Cyril and Methodius co-patrons of Europe, along with Saint Benedict.

Cyril was born in Thessalonica (b. 826 or 827) and educated in Constantinople. He and his older brother Methodius (b. ca. 815) both became monks at a monastery on Mount Olympus. (Their baptismal names were Constantine and Michael.)

In about 862, the brothers were sent on a mission to Crimea, where Cyril learned Hebrew — and found the relics of Saint Clement, which he took to Rome. Cyril and Methodius were later sent to Moravia at the request of Prince Ratislav of Moravia, who wrote: “Since our people rejected paganism they have embraced the Christian law; but we do not have a teacher who can explain the true faith to us in our own language”.

The brothers’ mission was “unusually successful”, said Pope Benedict. “By translating the liturgy into the Slavonic language the two brothers earned immense popularity”. The Holy Father continued:

However, this [popularity] gave rise to hostility among the Frankish clergy who had arrived in Moravia before the brothers and considered the territory to be under their ecclesiastical jurisdiction. In order to justify themselves, in 867, the two brothers traveled to Rome.

On the way they stopped in Venice, where they had a heated discussion with the champions of the so-called “trilingual heresy” that claimed that there were only three languages in which it was lawful to praise God: Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The two brothers obviously forcefully opposed this claim.

In Rome Cyril and Methodius were received by Pope Adrian II…. The pope had also realized the great importance of their exceptional mission. Since the middle of the first millennium, in fact, thousands of Slavs had settled in those territories located between the two parts of the Roman Empire, the East and the West, whose relations were fraught with tension. The pope perceived that the Slav peoples would be able to serve as a bridge and thereby help to preserve the union between the Christians of both parts of the Empire. Thus he did not hesitate to approve the mission of the two brothers in Great Moravia, accepting and approving the use of the Slavonic language in the liturgy. The Slavonic Books were laid on the altar of Saint Mary of Phatmé (Saint Mary Major) and the liturgy in the Slavonic tongue was celebrated in the Basilicas of Saint Peter, Saint Andrew and Saint Paul.

Unfortunately, Cyril fell seriously ill in Rome. Feeling that his death was at hand, he wanted to consecrate himself totally to God as a monk in one of the Greek monasteries of the City (probably Santa Prassede) and took the monastic name of Cyril (his baptismal name was Constantine). He then insistently begged his brother Methodius, who in the meantime had been ordained a bishop, not to abandon their mission in Moravia and to return to the peoples there. He addressed this prayer to God: “Lord, my God … hear my prayers and keep the flock you have entrusted to me faithful…. Free them from the heresy of the three languages, gather them all in unity and make the people you have chosen agree in the true faith and confession”. He died on February 14, 869.

Faithful to the pledge he had made with his brother, Methodius returned to Moravia and Pannonia (today, Hungary) the following year, 870, where once again he encountered the violent aversion of the Frankish missionaries who took him prisoner. He did not lose heart and when he was released in 873, he worked hard to organize the Church and train a group of disciples. It was to the merit of these disciples that it was possible to survive the crisis unleashed after the death of Methodius on April 6, 885.… Welcomed in Bulgaria, [the disciples] were able to continue the mission that Methodius had begun and to disseminate the Gospel in the “Land of the Rus”.…

God with His mysterious Providence thus availed Himself of their persecution to save the work of the holy brothers. Literary documentation of their work is extant. It suffices to think of texts such as the Evangeliarium (liturgical passages of the New Testament), the Psalter, various liturgical texts in Slavonic, on which both the brothers had worked. Indeed, after Cyril’s death, it is to Methodius and to his disciples that we owe the translation of the entire Sacred Scriptures, the Nomocanone and the Book of the Fathers.

Wishing now to sum up concisely the profile of the two brothers, we should first recall the enthusiasm with which Cyril approached the writings of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, learning from him the value of language in the transmission of the Revelation. Saint Gregory had expressed the wish that Christ would speak through him: “I am a servant of the Word, so I put myself at the service of the Word”.

Desirous of imitating Gregory in this service, Cyril asked Christ to deign to speak in Slavonic through him. He introduced his work of translation with the solemn invocation: “Listen, O all of you Slav Peoples, listen to the word that comes from God, the word that nourishes souls, the word that leads to the knowledge of God”. In fact, a few years before the Prince of Moravia had asked the Emperor Michael III to send missionaries to his country, it seems that Cyril and his brother Methodius, surrounded by a group of disciples, were already working on the project of collecting the Christian dogmas in books written in Slavonic. The need for new graphic characters closer to the language spoken was therefore clearly apparent: so it was that the Glagolitic alphabet came into being. Subsequently modified, it was later designated by the name “Cyrillic”, in honor of the man who inspired it. It was a crucial event for the development of the Slav civilization in general. Cyril and Methodius were convinced that the individual peoples could not claim to have received the Revelation fully unless they had heard it in their own language and read it in the characters proper to their own alphabet.

Methodius had the merit of ensuring that the work begun by his brother was not suddenly interrupted. While Cyril, the “philosopher”, was more inclined to contemplation, Methodius on the other hand had a leaning for the active life. Thanks to this he was able to lay the foundations of the successive affirmation of what we might call the “Cyrillian-Methodian idea”: it accompanied the Slav peoples in the different periods of their history, encouraging their cultural, national and religious development.… The historic role [Cyril and Methodius] played was later officially proclaimed by Pope John Paul II who, with his Apostolic Letter Egregiae Virtutis, declared them Co-Patrons of Europe, together with Saint Benedict (December 31, 1980; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, January 19, 1981, p. 3).

Cyril and Methodius are in fact a classic example of what today is meant by the term “inculturation”: every people must integrate the message revealed into its own culture and express its saving truth in its own language. This implies a very demanding effort of “translation” because it requires the identification of the appropriate words to present anew, without distortion, the riches of the revealed word. The two holy brothers have left us a most important testimony of this, to which the Church also looks today in order to draw from it inspiration and guidelines.

Vatican translation:



The Editors