Our God is a God of surprises who often works in unexpected ways to bring his saving truth to his people.
To carry out his plans, he needs disciples who are courageous, creative, and filled with faith. In the ninth century, God chose two such men—Cyril and Methodius—to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Slavonic people in their own language. Although they would have preferred to stay in their monastery, these men followed God’s call with a burning zeal. Their mission would have a profound impact on the Slavic nations, both culturally and spiritually, and they would eventually become known as the Apostles to the Slavs.
Cyril and Methodius were brothers and monks. Because Slavs had taken up residence outside their city of Thessalonica many years before, they were familiar with Slavonic. They were the perfect choice for a missionary outreach to Moravia, a formerly pagan nation outside the Holy Roman and Byzantine empires that had recently embraced Christianity.
Called Back into the World. Cyril was the youngest of seven children. Born in 827, he was baptized Constantine. Methodius was probably born in 815. Their parents were wealthy Christians of the noble class, and both brothers were well educated. At the age of sixteen, Cyril began studies in philosophy at the imperial school in Constantinople and eventually became a renowned professor of philosophy. Methodius became a civil administrator.
Despite their worldly successes, both men were drawn to religious life. Methodius entered a monastery on Mount Olympus, where he was made abbot. Cyril was ordained a priest and, in 855, he joined his brother as a monk. There, on Olympus, they pursued a life of prayer and contemplation.
Yet political concerns would soon sweep the two brothers back into the world they had abandoned. In 860, Emperor Michael II, head of the Byzantine empire, sent a delegation to the Khazar empire in the Ukraine. The mission was diplomatic—the emperor wanted to make sure the Khazars would come to his aid in case the Byzantine empire was attacked from the north. Cyril and Methodius were asked to join the delegation.
The Search for Relics. Cyril knew the group would be passing through the Crimea, where St. Clement I—the third successor of St. Peter—was said to be buried on a small island near the city of Cherson. He was determined to find the grave. When they arrived in Cherson, Cyril convinced the archbishop to assemble a search party. They set out early on January 30, 861, singing praises to God and invoking the intercession of St. Clement.
According to tradition, St. Clement was cast into the sea with an anchor tied to him while in exile in Crimea during the first century. When bones were excavated near the ruins of an old church—along with an anchor—the search party believed they had discovered the saint’s remains and returned to the city rejoicing.
Cyril and Methodius returned home from the Ukraine weary and anxiously looking forward to resuming their monastic life. However, only a few months later, Prince Rastislav of Moravia petitioned the emperor to send a bishop and teacher to his nation, located in the present-day Czech Republic.
Developing a Written Language. When asked about the mission, Cyril hesitated. The Slavs did not have a written language. How could he possibly disseminate the gospel without one? Furthermore, no one had ever been able to produce a Slavonic alphabet. When Cyril pointed this out to the emperor, he replied, “If you are willing, you can do it, with the help of God, who gives to all who ask with confidence and opens to those who knock.”
Over the next several months, Cyril developed a Slavonic script and began translating the Gospels. When the delegation was ready to depart, the missionaries carried a precious gift—the newly translated books. A message to Prince Rastislav from the emperor said, “God has accomplished in our time what until now has never been done: he has made known a system of letters for your language that you also may become a great nation, whose people will glorify God in their own tongue.”
Although Prince Rastislav truly wanted Christian missionaries, his request to the Byzantine emperor was not entirely spiritual. His country had recently become independent of Germany, and he was looking for an ally in the East to help ward off future attacks. To ensure his independence, he sought a separate church hierarchy—not one under the German bishops. Undeterred by the politics of the situation, the Lord would use even these motives to bring his word to his people.
Cyril and Methodius spent nearly four years in Moravia. They used the Slavonic language in their preaching and in the Masses they celebrated. Although it was the custom in the East to use the native language in the liturgy, it was virtually unheard of in the Western tradition. So, while their missionary efforts met with immediate success, the German priests in the country were incensed. They had first evangelized the area—although with marginal results—and questioned the right of the Greek missionaries to be in Moravia in the first place.
The Journey to Rome. Whether they were summoned to Rome or decided to go on their own, the brothers set out in 867 to meet with the pope. He would have to settle the question of the Slavonic liturgy. They brought with them some disciples, all Slavs, who hoped to be ordained by the pope.
Along the way, in Venice, Church officials questioned Cyril and Methodius: “Why this production of books for the Slavs, and why this use of them in the liturgy? Such a thing has never been done before.” They insisted that only three languages—Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—were appropriate for liturgical worship. Cyril was convinced that his missionary success was due largely to his use of the native language and cited the words of St. Paul to the Philippians: “Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:11).
The group arrived triumphantly in Rome, bringing with them the relics of St. Clement. Pope Hadrian II seemed to recognize that God was working in a new way, and that Cyril and Methodius were pioneers in that work through the Slavonic liturgy. He blessed the Slavonic liturgical books and placed them on the altar. The Slavonic disciples were ordained, and the pope re-established an ancient See covering Moravia and nearby Pannonia (modern-day Hungary) that would be independent from the German hierarchy.
“A Servant of God Almighty.” Before they could return to Moravia, however, Cyril fell ill. Sensing that he was near death, he donned monastic robes once more. “From now on,” he said, “I am no longer a servant of the emperor or of anyone else, but only of God Almighty.” Although he had always been called by his baptismal name of Constantine, he chose his new name in honor of St. Cyril of Alexandria. On February 14, 869, a mere fifty days after accepting the monastic habit, Cyril died at the age of forty-two. He was buried in the Church of St. Clement in Rome, alongside the relics he had discovered.
Before his death, Cyril made his brother promise that he would complete the work that they had started together, rather than retire to a monastery. Methodius was consecrated Archbishop of the new See, and soon left for Pannonia, where he was enthusiastically greeted by Prince Kocel.
The German bishops were far from happy with the situation, however. They accused Methodius of trespassing on their territory. “If I believed it was yours,” said Methodius, “I would depart, but it rightfully belongs to St. Peter.” While being questioned by the bishops, someone remarked how much he was perspiring. He replied, “I have been sparring with slow-witted men.”
Imprisoned by a Bishop. Without permitting any appeals to Rome, the German bishops imprisoned Methodius for two and one-half years. When the pope, newly elected John VIII, found out that Methodius was in prison, he demanded his release. “What kind of bishop is he who thus injures a brother-bishop?” he asked.
Out of prison, Methodius immediately set to work. These were the most productive years of his ministry. He reopened the seminary, assigned priests to the local towns, baptized new believers, and traveled to visit his flock in every part of the territory.
Despite these successes, more trials awaited Methodius. In 879, a German priest went to Rome to lodge a complaint, charging Methodius with teaching heresies and with using Slavonic in the liturgy. Methodius traveled to Rome, where he successfully defended himself against the charges. The pope once again sanctioned the Slavonic liturgy, as long as the Scriptures were read first in Latin.
Unfortunately, a German priest named Wiching—who fiercely opposed Methodius—was appointed one of his bishops. Wiching was in Rome at the same time as Methodius but rushed home before him to spread false rumors that the pope had condemned and deposed the archbishop. He even forged a papal bull that named him as the rightful archbishop. It took several letters back and forth from Rome to set the record straight.
During his last few years, Methodius completed the translations from Greek into Slavonic of all of the books of the Old Testament. Beloved and surrounded by the Slovak people, he died on March 6, 885.
Apostles to the Slavs. The controversy over the Slavonic liturgy and ecclesiastic jurisdiction continued after his death. Disciples of Methodius were eventually expelled from Moravia but became missionaries in surrounding Slavic countries. In 907, the Great Moravian Empire collapsed under the attack of pagan Hungarians. Yet, the legacy of Saints Cyril and Methodius could not be destroyed. They had placed their lives before God, to use as he willed. He used them to bring not only a written language to the Slavs, but the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Patricia Mitchell is the content editor of The Word Among Us magazine.