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Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Co-Patron Saints of Europe

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Co-Patron Saints of Europe

Jan Matejko, “Slowjanom,” 1885 (photo: Public Domain)

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, pray for us!

Cyril (827-869) and Methodius (826-885) were brothers, born in Thessalonica, in northeastern Greece. They became priests and monks, but were soon called upon to be missionaries. Their first journey took them to the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic people who lived in lands around and between the Black and Caspian Seas, which today include Ukraine, Russia and the Caucasus. Their work there was successful, spreading the Gospel in those lands.

The brothers were then asked to go to Moravia, the eastern part of what is today the Czech Republic, especially around the city of Brno. The Slavic peoples of Central Europe were coming into contact with the Gospel and wanted to be taught in their native languages. Some German missionaries had already labored there unsuccessfully, so Cyril and Methodius went in their stead. The brothers first developed an alphabet for the Slavic peoples, one which included the unique sounds of Slavic tongues: their work laid the foundation for the Cyrillic alphabet used in places like Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia. They translated the Gospels and liturgical books into Slavonic, and had many successes during their 4-1/2 year ministry there.

Although the Orthodox would not go into formal schism for another two centuries, in 1054, there were already tensions between East and West and Cyril and Methodius were called to Rome to ascertain the fidelity of their teaching. Pope Adrian II affirmed their orthodoxy, ordained the brothers bishops, and sent them back to Moravia, although Cyril died in Rome.

Methodius did return and eventually Pope Adrian established an archdiocese in Pannonia, making Methodius bishop and the Church in that part of Central Europe independent of the Germans. That did not sit well with the German bishops, who convened a synod in Regensburg, summoned Methodius to it, deposed and imprisoned him. Pope John VIII ordered his release. Methodius returned to his diocese and proceeded to spread the Christian faith in Bohemia (the western Czech Republic, which includes Prague) and into southern Poland.

The Germans continued to impugn Methodius’ orthodoxy and the Slavonic liturgy, which Rome approved. Methodius also led the translation of almost the entire Bible into Slavonic. Methodius died in 885 and, as a mark of the success of his evangelization efforts, was succeeded by a Slav in his diocese.

Today, an important mark in the spiritual maturity of a missionary territory is when its own peoples can assume responsibility for the local Church as its bishops and priests. That the Slav Gorazd followed Methodius testifies to the reception of the Gospel among the Slavs.

Christianity would continue to advance among the Slavic peoples. In 966 Prince Mieszko would be baptized, bringing Poland into the Western Christian fold. In 988, Prince Vladimir would lead his people to be baptized in the Dnieper River, which flows through Kyiv, bringing Christianity to what is today Ukraine and, from there, to Russia. Unfortunately, the Christian unity of the Slavic peoples would be divided when the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes and Croats would remain in the Catholic Church, while the Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians and Serbians would join Orthodoxy.

The spread of Christianity through the Slavic peoples continued the progressive evangelization of the European continent, begun first in the Mediterranean basin among the Greco-Latin peoples of the Roman Empire, then spreading to Celts and in Britain as well as to the Germanic peoples who invaded the Roman Empire. The progressive Christianization of the various Slavic tribes in the ninth to eleventh centuries spread the Church in Central and Eastern Europe. All that would then be left was the gradual Christianization of the Nordic peoples, particularly in the 11th century, and later the Baltic peoples in the 14th century.

Two other observations about the Slavs: their etymology and their diversity.

When Pope Gregory the Great saw fair-skinned Angles from Britain being sold in the Roman slave market, it’s said — in response to his question who they were — “non Angli sed Angeli,” “they are not Angles but angels.” If the remark is a compliment to the early peoples of Britain, there is a reciprocally a backhanded slur among some people about the Slavs, arguing that “Slav” comes from “slave,” suggesting the Slavic peoples were somehow second-class. There’s a strong argument to be made that “Slav” is related to “slovo,” which means “word,” so that Slavs were speakers of the word (which, in most of their languages contrasts with their word for German, e.g., in Polish, niemiec,literally, “mute,” because the language was alien to the Slavic peoples. Perhaps later, “Slav” gave birth to the English word “slave” because Slavic territories were so often ravaged by other peoples, who took their inhabitants into servitude, but that suggests a different order of origins for the term.

As for diversity, the Slavic peoples have long prized their freedom, individuality, and sovereignty: they wanted to be a free people on their own land. Their freedom and diversity is sometimes denigrated in Western textbooks which brand the diversity of the Slavic peoples “a crazy quilt and patchwork of confused ethnicities,” an evaluation saying more about the ignorance of the writer than the supposed arrested social development of the Slavic peoples.

Finally, Cyril and Methodius were not the first priests to contribute to the linguistic development of the Slavic peoples. The clergy have long had a hand in promoting the Slavic languages, e.g., Father Anton Bernolák was responsible for the first dictionary to standardize the modern Slovak language used in Slovakia. Similar contributions were made, much earlier, in Croatia.

Today’s saints are illustrated in this painting by the Polish historical artist, Jan Matejko (1838-1893). Matejko is particularly known for huge and imposing paintings of key moments and personages in Polish history. He worked at a time when Poland was divided among Russian, German, and Austrian occupiers who erased the country from Europe’s maps from 1795-1918. The preservation of national identity was a critical function of artists and writers who, in language and literature, preserved what was politically outlawed.

The same can be said of Cyril and Methodius. While always paid lip service for their foundational role in the Christianization of the Slavs, the Slavs of 19th-century Europe when Matejko lived under deficient political conditions. Many of them were subjects of foreign, non-Slavic empires like the Prussian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. These included the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Bulgarians and Ukrainians. Others, like the Ukrainians and Belarusians, were subjects of the autocratic Russian Empire. In all these empires, the central authorities to a greater or lesser extent reduced the Slavic peoples and their languages to second-class status under the dominant rulers.

Matejko’s oil painting, roughly five feet high and three feet wide, was painted in 1885 to mark the millennium of the missionary work of Cyril and Methodius. The two saints are depicted in front of an altar, one pointing to the cross of Christ, the other holding sacred books written in the Slavonic language. Both brothers are dressed in ornate liturgical garments, befitting the Slavic custom of dedicating only the best to the cultic service of God. Amid Prussian, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian subjugation of various peoples, images of Our Lady of Częstochowa and the Lithuanian pogon (a knight in armor on a horse with a sword) are also depicted in the background. The smashed statue of Swiatowida — a pagan Slavic deity — lies under their feet, denoting that the ancient cult of the pagan Slavs had now come to an end. Like St. Patrick vis-à-vis the Irish, a decisive new era had begun for the Slavic peoples. The inscription beneath the painting, “Słowianom,” is a dedication, “To the Slavs.”

The painting is in the Basilica in Velehrad in the Czech Republic, although Matejko painted a smaller version found in Poznań, Poland.

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