In the 800’s AD, two brothers served as Christian missionaries into the land that is today Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Almost 1,200 hundred years later, their ministry was seen as so important that Pope John Paul II named them co-patrons of Europe with St. Benedict of Nursia. Saints Cyril and Methodius obviously had a lasting influence on the region and beyond.
Born in Thessalonica, Macedonia, they renounced the riches and prestige of their aristocratic family line and became priests. Eventually they were called to serve the Moravian people, and to do so effectively Cyril invented a new script alphabet. This alphabet, eventually known as Cyrillic, serves as the origin for many Eurasian, Slavic, Russian and Serbian written languages used by more than 250 million people today.
Not everyone welcomed the missionaries’ efforts, and because of tensions with some of the local and Byzantine rulers, they were eventually called to Rome by Pope Nicholas I. While there, Cyril died. Methodius was confirmed in the orthodoxy of his endeavors by Nicholas’ successor. He returned to his vocation, and was eventually named archbishop of Moravia and Pannonia. He continued to struggle in his defense of the faith, dying in office in 885.
Cyril and Methodius are today known as the Apostles to the Slavs. Their lives and holiness are commemorated throughout many of the world’s Christian denominations in various celebrations and honorific titles of churches and landmarks. The United States has a major seminary named after them in Michigan.
The brothers are wonderful examples of the splendors of Christianity beyond the Latin world. Many American Catholics tend to be somewhat parochial in the way they imagine and experience their religious lives, viewing liturgy and Christian history primarily (and understandably) through the Roman lens. But as this series is trying to make evident, there is a much richer and more contoured expression of the faith, both throughout history and around the world today. Cyril and Methodius demonstrate that Christianity is not the exclusive preserve of North American and Italian believers. The faith reaches into the far corners of our globe and adapts itself to a wide variety of intellectual and philosophical thought-systems. Our countless Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters through many generations, whom John Paul II referred to as the other “lung” of our faith, share our reverence for these great thinkers and teachers of the Gospel, and celebrate with us their heroic witness to Christ.
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.