Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.  Not to be republished without permission.
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No. 138 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program November 2008


by Brian W. Harrison

This is the text of a lecture delivered on September 26, 2007, at the Trialogos Festival in Tallinn, Estonia.

Introduction. I am greatly honoured by the invitation to speak at this Trialogos Festival. This is in fact my first visit, not only to Estonia, but to any part of Eastern Europe. I am aware that a high priority for this series of activities is that of studying, promoting, and appreciating ever more deeply the priceless heritage of classical European culture that grew and flourished from Christian and Catholic roots. The last two Roman Pontiffs – one from Poland and the other from Germany – have been born closer to your own Baltic homeland, I believe, than any previous popes in history. And both have emphasized the urgent need for a ‘new evangelization’ throughout Europe – East and West together – in the hope that the continent may thereby rediscover its Christian soul. For this is a time when the ‘culture of death’, rampant secularism, and the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threaten to reduce Europe’s native and still nominally Christian population to a point approaching demographic suicide, and her once-glorious cultural patrimony to a superficial, individualistic, materialistic, scepticism, bereft of any firm faith convictions or moral values. And of course, this spiritual and cultural decadence is rendering the continent more vulnerable than ever to the social and political inroads of a vigorous, culturally aggressive, and rapidly multiplying population of Muslim immigrants.

That recovery of Europe’s Christian culture which we wish to foment and nurture would of course be assisted and accelerated immeasurably if Christians themselves were more united than they are at present. Hence, dialogue and collaboration aimed at the restoration of Christian unity has been high on the agenda of all the popes of the last half-century, and of other European Christian leaders as well. Here in Estonia we are at one of the cross-roads of the three great blocs into which old Christendom has been sadly divided. Your country, situated at the Eastern fringe of that great bloc of Northern European nations that came to be dominated by Protestantism in recent centuries, thereby finds itself flanked on the East by the world’s most massive bastion of Orthodox Christianity, Russia, many of whose people are of course now living in Estonia. Finally, your country is not only situated close to two of Europe’s most strongly Catholic nations – Lithuania and Poland – but was itself, like all of Europe, thoroughly Catholic for centuries prior to the 16th-century Reformation. Estonia, in short, would seem to be a land excellently situated as a center for promoting authentic spiritual and cultural renewal, involving both Eastern and Western Christianity.

It is within this context that I wish to offer today a brief appreciation of two great Christian pioneers of the first millennium A.D., Saints Cyril and Methodius, who I think can appropriately be seen as “icons” of that spiritual and cultural renewal, spanning East and West, that lies at the heart of the Trialogos apostolate. An icon, in the oriental spiritual tradition, is of course much more than just a painted likeness of the Lord Jesus, the Blessed Mother of God, or some other saint; it is like a window intended to open up for the eyes of our soul, and thence for the contemplation of our heart, the serene vista of that whole spiritual world lived and expressed by the holy man or woman depicted on the icon.

And I would suggest that we contemplate for a little while today these holy brothers, and their wonderful accomplishments here in Eastern and Central Europe, seeing them as two living icons, written, as it were, in flesh and spirit by God rather than by any human artist. For I think Cyril and Methodius can serve very well today to inspire – for in their own time they truly incarnated – the quest for those goals which, as we have just recalled, are now more ever urgently needed for the genuine renewal of Europe at a time of grave social and spiritual crisis. In my own language, those goals, which the two great men pursued so successfully, can conveniently be encapsulated by three words beginning with the letter ‘E’:

1. Evangelization. The first and most primordial achievement of these two great Byzantine missionaries was the effective planting of the Gospel and the Church of Christ among the Slavic peoples inhabiting the very heart of the European continent: their influence, based in what was then the kingdom of Greater Moravia, radiated out from what today is Slovakia to significant parts of the countries we now know as the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Austria, Germany, Croatia, Bosnia and Ukraine.

2. Ecumenism. Unity between Eastern and Western Christianity, in the ninth century as well as the twenty-first, was a high priority. In our time it needs to be restored; at that time it needed to be upheld and maintained. For divisive tenden­­cies, often based more on ethnic pride and petty cultural narrow-mindedness than on serious doctrinal discrepan­cies, were already threatening to tear asunder that seamless robe of Christ which is his holy Church on earth. Cyril and Methodius – especially the latter – were given the broad vision, the warm charity, and the spirit of forgiveness that were neces­sary to overcome such challenges, and to show how it was perfectly possible to be fully Catholic, in submission to Peter’s Successor, while at the same time remaining loyal Byzantine subjects of the Eastern Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople.

3. Education. Finally, the work of these two brothers provides a marvelous example – arguably the most outstanding in European history – of how the Christianization of the peoples of this continent went hand in hand (as it also did in other regions of the world) with marked advances in civilization and culture. This time it is Saint Cyril who receives the palm. His name until almost the very end of his life was actually Constantine, and from an early age he was dubbed ‘Constantine the Philosopher’ in the Byzantine capital on account of his extraordinary intelligence and deep learning in a broad range of secular as well as religious subjects. His most memorable achievement was the development of the first alphabet for the Slavic language, an accomplishment with far-reaching implications for the whole cultural history of central and Eastern Europe.

In the rest of my talk I shall attempt to offer you a brief appreciation of Cyril and Methodius’s achievements in regard to each of these ‘Three Es’. But first, a short biographical sketch will be appropriate in order to provide a context for those reflections.

Biographical Outline. The very birthplace of Cyril – Constantine – and Methodius was a place full of symbolic significance, given that they were destined for great achievements in the field of writing and Christian literature, and in upholding Church unity. For the original Christian believers of their home town were the recipients of what scholars generally acknowledge as the most ancient of all surviving Christian writings: St. Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians, written around 50 A.D. At that time, of course, there was no urgent struggle either to establish or to maintain Christian unity; for in the Church’s infancy there were as yet no sects, no denominational divisions among Christians, just the one εκκληςία – the community of those “called out” to worship Jesus as Saviour.

The two brothers were born there at Thessalonica – by that time, in the ninth century, a busy and thriving port of the Byzantine Empire – into a well-to-do family of Greek and Bulgarian lineage. Methodius was a decade or so older than Cyril, being born between 815 and 820, while the year of the latter’s birth was probably 827. As a result of migratory movements over the previous century or two, this historic city, along with other imperial provinces as far East as Asia Minor, already hosted a significant presence of people belonging to that ethnic group whose homeland Cyril and Methodius were later called to evangelize: the Slavs. The two lads, whose father was an important government official, quickly showed a propensity for both piety and learning, especially the younger brother. At age 15 Cyril was sent to study in the imperial school at Constantinople, and a year later Methodius, still only in his mid-to-late ‘20s, but having inherited his father’s talent for administration and leadership and after studying law, was appointed the archon (governor) of an imperial province in Macedonia inhabited mainly by Slavs. This position, which he held for ten years until 853, providentially afforded him an unrivalled opportunity to deepen his knowledge of the Slavonic language and the culture of those peoples whose central European homeland he would one day be sent to evangelize.

Meanwhile, in Constantinople – acknowledged as the intellectual capital of the world at that time – young Cyril was rapidly becoming known in both imperial and patriarchal circles for his extraordinary brilliance as a scholar in both secular and sacred disciplines. At only 22 years of age he became Patriarch Ignatius’ secretary and was made the librarian of the monumental church of Hagia Sophia. Just one year later, in 850, the Empress Regent Theodora made Cyril the head of the philosophy department of the imperial school of higher learning – a kind of ancient proto-university. In 851, ‘Constantine the Philosopher’, as the young prodigy had already been dubbed, deeply impressed the Saracens with both his secular learning and his skilful Christian apologetics during an official visit for both diplomatic and religious purposes to Samarra, on the River Tigris, then the seat of the Caliph and capital of the Muslim world.

In the mid-850s, both brothers suddenly and surprisingly renounced their outstandingly successful careers as laymen. Neither had married, and both had been nurturing a longing for the contemplative, consecrated life. Now they found themselves reunited in a monastery on Mount Olympus in Asia Minor, where Methodius soon became the abbot. This withdrawal from the world, however, would prove to be only a quiet, brief interlude, no doubt fortifying the brothers spiritually for what would be their life’s greatest work. Their talents were too much in demand by both civil and ecclesi­as­tical authorities in the Byzantine capital for them to remain out of circulation for long. In 860 they acceded to the young Emperor Michael III’s request to lead another diplomatic-cum-religious mission, this time a journey of over a year to the Khazar people dwelling in the Crimean region. Not only did Cyril sharpen his linguistic talents there, studying the local, Slavonic-related tongue, but he and his brother succeeded in converting about 200 Khazars from Judaism and in trium­phantly unearthing the long-lost relics of Pope St. Clement I, who had been exiled and martyred there at the end of the first century A.D.

Having returned to Constantinople, and after scarcely enough time to recover from their grueling mission to the Crimea, the brothers were called to embark on what would be their major vocational undertaking. In 862 the Slavic prince Rastislav, ruler of Great Moravia, sent a delegation to Emperor Michael III, requesting that missionaries be sent to his realm who could teach the people Christianity in their own Slavonic tongue. The petition was politically as well as spiritually motivated, since German missionaries, using only Latin for biblical and liturgical texts, had already been working in Great Moravia since the time of Charlemagne, and Rastislav, just like his 20th-century Czechoslovakian successors in Adolf Hitler’s time, was becoming concerned lest his realm be swallowed up from the West by a nascent “thousand-year Reich” – in this case the Frankish-Germanic ‘Holy Roman Empire’ (which did in fact last a thousand years). The Emperor at Constantinople also anticipated political as well as religious benefits from a Byzantine Christian presence in central Europe; and so he and the Patriarch appointed Cyril, now ordained to the priesthood, as leader of an expedition entrusted with fulfilling the Moravian monarch’s request. Methodius was to accompany his younger brother as deputy leader. Thus, in 863, after a year or so of preparation during which Cyril formulated an entire new Slavonic alphabet and used it to begin translating the Gospels, the band of missionaries set out from Constantinople to begin their historic work in the Slavic heartland. They were very well received by Rastislav and the local populace in Moravia and Hungary, but their very success prompted increasingly jealous and bitter opposition from the nearby German- and Latin-speaking prelates, who saw the Byzantine missionaries as upstarts from the East encroaching on territory they regarded as under their own Western jurisdiction. They even accused the Greek monks of heresy because of their promotion of a so-called “non-sacred” language for religious purposes.

Finally, in 868, the brothers found themselves obliged to travel to Rome in search of papal support against this opposition, and even persecution. Stopping in Venice on the way, they also had to confront stiff opposition there from local church authorities. Similar hostility turned out to be widespread among many lesser Roman prelates, but Pope Adrian II, after carefully hearing both sides of the dispute, fully vindicated the orthodoxy and canonical standing of the holy missionaries from Thessalonica. Also, the fact that they brought back, in solemn procession, to their rightful resting place the relics of Pope St. Clement I, third successor of St. Peter himself, naturally did much to win them good will and honour in Rome. By this time, however the health of the younger brother was exhausted. Knowing he had little time left on earth, he embraced once again the habit and austere solitude of an Eastern-rite monk, changing his name from Constantine to Cyril. Just fifty days later, in the year 869, he died at 42 years of age – on February 14, the date appointed after Vatican Council II as the Feast-Day of both brothers in the ordinary form of the Roman Rite liturgy.

In spite of Cyril’s demise, the evangelization of the Slavs in their own language was to continue, now with full papal support, under the direction of Methodius. Pope Adrian ordained him first as a priest (along with some young Slavic men of his entourage), and then, just before he left Rome, as episcopal Ordinary of the ancient but long-since inactive Archdiocese of Syrmium (located on the Danube at the border of Croatia and Serbia). In fact, Methodius went to reside well to the north of Syrmium, returning to Velehrad, the Moravian capital.

Even though the new Archbishop now enjoyed full ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the broad area inhabited by the central European Slavs, his troubles were far from over. During the 870s, a time of political turbulence and outright warfare between Slavs and Germans, he had to face continuing jealousy, betrayal, and outright defiance of the Pope’s authority from his stubborn ecclesiastical foes, whose hostility was now backed up by the swords of powerful princes. After blinding and imprisoning his friend and original Slavic patron, Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia, Methodius’ German enemies managed to imprison him as well for three full years. Even after firm papal intervention finally secured his release, his continuing work as head of the steadily growing Slavic Church was soon interrupted yet again by more trumped-up calumnies and charges of heresy. This necessitated another trip to Rome in 880, in order to justify his doctrine and pastoral methods to the new Pope, John VIII. This Pontiff, on coming to realize Methodius had been unjustly maligned, proved just as supportive as Adrian II, if not even more so. He promulgated a Bull, Industriae Tuae, which formally endorsed every point of the Archbishop’s liturgical and other apostolic initiatives while unambiguously confirming his jurisdiction over the Slavic Christians. Even after that, he had to suffer opposition and treachery, including that of a false friend named Wiching. This German priest, assisted by political manipulation on the part of powerful supporters, had managed to get himself made a suffragan bishop of Moravia, supposedly to assist Methodius. In reality, he used deception and even forged documents to undermine the work initiated by the two holy brothers, especially during Methodius’ absence from Moravia during a final trip back to Constantinople in 882, undertaken at the Emperor’s request. Nevertheless, in the midst of all these trials, and gradually failing in strength, Methodius was able to persevere till the end of his days in preaching, teaching, governing, forming a Slavic clergy, and translating religious texts into Slavonic. He finally surrendered his great soul to God at Velehrad on Holy Tuesday, April 6, 885, at the age of about 70. In the decades immediately after his death, further instability and warfare, culminating in the destruction of Great Moravia as a nation by invading pagan Hungarians in 907, seemed at first to have destroyed all the good work begun by Cyril and Methodius. But in reality, the fruitful vine they had planted had sunk roots so deep that even these catastrophes could not extinguish its life. Little by little, among the Slavic Christians dispersed by this pagan violence, green shoots would again appear, grow and flourish in the medieval period, at first in Bulgaria in a particularly positive way. That vine has grown great again, continuing to bear spiritual and cultural fruit that has lasted in Central Europe until the present day.

* * * * * * *

I shall now turn to comment in a little more detail survey on Cyril and Methodius’ main specific areas of achievement, classified for convenience according to the ‘three Es’ mentioned already in my introduction. In doing this, I shall frequently quote and make reference to the authoritative, but not sufficiently well known commentary of one far more qualified than myself to write an appreciation of the great apostles of the Slavic peoples: Pope John Paul II, who himself has become probably the most famous representative of those peoples who has ever lived.

Please allow me at this point to interject a short autobiographical digression. My own interest in these two saints dates precisely from 1985, a year I began as a deacon studying theology in Rome. In that year Catholic and Orthodox Christians, along with many other Europeans, were commemorating the 1100 years that had passed since the death of St. Methodius. I was then living at the Pontifical Nepomucene College, an institution that is itself part of the long-term legacy of the two holy brothers; for it was founded as the Roman residence for Czech and Slovak seminarians and clergy. Then, two of the most privileged events of my life – moments of close personal contact with the late Holy Father – coincided providentially with key moments in these centenary celebrations. First, the anniversary of Methodius’ death, 6 April 1985, happened to be Holy Saturday that year, and I was chosen for the highest liturgical role that any Catholic deacon could ever aspire to: acting as principal assistant to the Successor of Peter in the most glorious Mass of the Church’s yearly calendar. That night, for the Easter Vigil Mass, it fell to me to lead the solemn procession into St. Peter’s Basilica bearing the great Paschal Candle; to chant in Latin that ancient proclamation of Christ’s victory over death, the Exultet; to chant also the triumphal Gospel of his resurrection; and to be, quite literally, John Paul’s right-hand man as he baptized and confirmed a group of new Christians. Then, just two months later, I had the still greater privilege of being one of a group of deacons ordained to the priesthood by the Holy Father. And this took place on the very same day – Trinity Sunday, 2 June 1985 – that the Pope signed the document whose valuable observations I wish to share with you today. This is the Encyclical Epistle Slavorum Apostoli (SA), addressed to “all the Christian faithful, in commemoration of the eleventh centenary of the evangelizing work of Saints Cyril and Methodius:

Evangelization. Let us turn first, then, to a glance at the evangelizing work of the brothers from Thessalonica. Pope John Paul gives this work pride of place in his evaluation of their manifold contribution to Slavic life and history, in the two chapters of his encyclical entitled, respectively, “Heralds of the Gospel” and “They Planted the Church of God”.

Like most missionaries before and since, Cyril and Methodius had to make great sacrifices in order to carry out their labours. As the Pope puts it:

For them, this task meant giving up not only a position of honour but also the contemplative life. It meant leaving the area of the Byzantine Empire and undertaking a long pilgrimage in the service of the Gospel among peoples that, in many aspects, were still very alien to the system of civil society based on the advanced organization of the State and the refined culture of Byzantium, imbued with Christian principles.1

However, there were certain distinctive features of the brothers’ work among the Slavs that we can say were innovative at that time – particularly by Western Catholic standards. These peoples had already been partially evangelized by Western missionaries (and, it seems, a few Greek-speaking clerics probably from Byzantine-controlled Dalmatia). But the inadequate and superficial character of their influence up till that time becomes apparent from the petition sent by Prince Rastislav to the Emperor Michael III. He said:

Since our people rejected idolatry and came under Christian law, we have not had a teacher capable of explaining this faith to us in our own tongue, so that other countries, seeing this, might imitate us. . . . Many Christian teachers have come to us from the Latins, the Greeks and the Germans, who teach us various things. We Slavs are simple people and have no one to guide us to the truth and teach us knowledge. Therefore, good Lord, send us such a man as can teach us the whole truth.2

The key words in Rastislav’s request here are “in our own tongue”. It might surprise us today that missionaries would not be working mainly, if not exclusively in the language of the people they were evangelizing. However, in ancient times, without the aid of printed materials, dictionaries and other modern aids, the use of some secondary language – a lingua franca – was far more common than in recent centuries, above all for the most sacred texts: those used for divine worship and the Sacred Scriptures. We need only recall certain well-known facts: the New Testament itself was written in Greek, a second language for most of its original readers and all of its inspired authors themselves; the language of the Mass and Sacraments for the entire Western Church as it spread throughout the Americas, Africa, the Pacific and much of Asia, was almost exclusively Latin until only about forty years ago; and to this day there are strong currents in Islam that insist that all good Muslims should make the effort to learn Arabic, since translations of the Koran into other tongues are considered inadequate and unreliable in principle.

The dedicated labours of Cyril and Methodius, therefore, can be seen as a truly outstanding initiative. For they not only translated the key biblical, liturgical and canonical texts into the language then spoken by the widely dispersed Slavic peoples (now known as Old Slavonic); they invented a whole new alphabet in order to do so effectively. Their own prior formation and exceptional gifts made them ideally suited for this kind of task. The new alphabet was basically the work of Cyril – ‘Constantine the Philosopher’ – who was the more ‘academic’, literary, partner in the duo and had already dedicated years of study to various other foreign languages and scripts. Methodius, for his part, seems to have had a more fluent command of the language as it was actually spoken by the common people, thanks to the ten years of his youth spent as the governor of an imperial Slavonic-speaking province in Macedonia. One of his last accomplishments was to complete the translation of the entire Bible (with the exception of the Books of Maccabees) into that language, dictating quite rapidly to scribes who used a newly developed form of shorthand.

This priority the brothers gave to the Slavonic language in their missionary endeavours was itself only one manifestation of a deeper and more far-reaching understanding of their role as heralds of the Gospel, motivated as they were to plant a deeply rooted and truly indigenous Church. As Pope John Paul expresses it:

For this purpose they desired to become similar in every aspect to those to whom they were bringing the Gospel; they wished to become part of those peoples and to share their lot in everything. Precisely for this reason they found it natural to take a clear position in all the conflicts which were disturbing the societies as they became organized. They took as their own the difficulties and problems inevitable for peoples who were defending their own identity against the military and cultural pressure of the new Romano-Germanic Empire, and who were attempting to resist forms of life which they felt to be foreign.3

This attempt to identify fully with the Slavic people in all aspects of their lives, not merely the ‘religious’ aspect in a narrow sense, inevitably brought them into tragic conflicts, as they faced opposition and even imprisonment: not, as so often happens in mission territories, from pagan religious and political leaders opposed to Christianity as such, but from other Catholics – even missionaries – who identified too closely with the culture, language and politics of their own Western European nationalities. The fact that, in spite of this unrelenting opposition and harassment, the work of Cyril and Methodius flourished among the Slavic peoples themselves, among whom they soon began to encourage indigenous vocations to the priesthood, shows the wisdom and far-sightedness of their approach. We can let the Pope once again summarize their achievements in this fundamental area of their work:

Their generous decision to identify themselves with those people’s life and traditions, once purified and enlightened by Revelation, make Cyril and Methodius true models for all the missionaries who in every period have accepted Saint Paul’s invitation to become all things to all people in order to redeem all. And in particular for the missionaries who, from ancient times until the present day, from Europe to Asia and today in every continent, have laboured to translate the Bible and the texts of the liturgy into the living languages of the various peoples, so as to bring them the one word of God, thus made accessible in each civilization’s own forms of expression.4

2. Ecumenism. In the title of this paper I have given particular emphasis to this second aspect of the mission of Cyril and Methodius, describing them as “icons of East-West Christian unity”. And indeed, they are among the relatively few post-biblical saints who have been found attractive and inspiring by all three main branches of today’s sadly divided Christendom – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. In fact, this was brought home to me in rather a quaint way while I was preparing this talk. I purchased via the Internet three new books on the two holy brothers, without being able to tell in advance from their titles what ecclesial perspective their authors would be writing from. In fact, the authors turned out to be representatives of all three traditions respectively. And each of them, to the extent possible, claims the two great apostles to the Slavs as their own! One is by a Slovak-American Catholic nun, who presents them, naturally, as Eastern-rite Catholics.5 Another, by a renowned Greek specialist on ‘cyrillomethodian’ studies, an emeritus professor of Thessalonica’s Aristotle University, who sees them as champions of “Orthodoxy” (even though the brothers themselves, like other Byzantine Christians of the first millennium, did not customarily use that word to designate their own religious affiliation.6 And the third book that arrived for me in the mail turned out to be produced in the literary form of a ‘graphic novel’, written and illustrated by an American (or perhaps English) married couple and evidently aimed mainly at a readership of school students.7 The authors are clearly Evangelical Protestants, because although their picturesque biography recognizes – unavoidably – the obedience of Cyril and Methodius to the popes of their time as well as other decidedly non-Protestant features of their religion, Mr. and Mrs. McCollough fondly place on the lips of the holy brothers (and of Photius, their famous teacher in Constantinople) a version of the Gospel that could have been lifted straight from a sermon by Billy Graham or some television evangelist from the U.S.A.’s southern ‘Bible Belt’. (We find our heroes, via their dialogue balloons, earnestly exhorting 9th-century Slavic listeners – as well as 21st-century teenage readers – to make a “decision for Jesus” as the “Lord of your life”, so as thus to become “saved” and assured of going to Heaven, thus becoming freed thenceforth from any personal worries regarding Judgment Day.

Evidently, then, Cyril and Methodius are already seen by a wide cross-section of Christians as symbols of our now tragically damaged unity. But to appreciate more fully their significance in this regard – and I will be speaking here frankly from my own Roman Catholic perspective – we need to reflect on certain key elements in the historical situation.

First and foremost, of course, is the fact that although in the ninth century tensions were already building up between Rome and Constantinople – tensions which would issue two centuries later in the far more serious rupture, involving mutual excommunications of the Patriarch and the papal legates, of the year 1054 – no Christian as yet ever questioned the basic unity of the one original Church, in its Eastern and Western branches, founded by Jesus Christ. Of course, sects, heresies and schisms had arisen many times in the course of nine hundred years, but they had all proved so far to be either transient or, if more durable, at least relatively small and geographically remote from mainstream Christendom. Today’s massive division of Christians into huge and disparate blocs, lasting so far for a full millennium, would have been conceived as an unthinkable nightmare scenario by Cyril and Methodius and their Christian contemporaries. And their own life and ministry showed clearly – in pastoral practice as well as in theological theory – how it was possible to be fully Catholic, recognizing the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff, while remaining simultaneously fully Byzantine, Greek and Oriental.

Even though no formal rupture had yet occurred between East and West, the two brothers’ determination to maintain in practice the unity that still existed in principle proved very difficult and costly for them. The harassment and suffering they had to endure resulted partly from political expansionism of German princes seeking dominion over the Slavic peoples, but it was due even more to a heretical aberration that was then circulating among quite a few highly-placed German and Latin churchmen. This was the theory that became known as ‘Trilingualism’. (If you have never heard of this early heresy, don’t feel bad, because hardly anyone else today has heard of it either – probably because it was rather easily refuted and so quite short-lived.) Trilingualists exhibited a classic example of the pharisaical mentality that our Lord reproved so severely in the religious leaders of first-century Israel. But now it re-surfaced in Christian rather than Jewish garb. Elevating merely human, and in this case, geographically local, traditions to the level of divine revelation, they insisted vehemently that only three of the world’s innumerable languages were noble and ‘sacred’ enough to be used for divine worship or for translating the Sacred Scriptures: Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Some extreme Trilingualists apparently even insisted that all teaching and preaching be done in one or other of these languages. (Their God, it would seem, was imposing some pretty stiff linguistic requirements on most of the world’s inhabitants as a condition for citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.) Rather curiously, for people who appealed loudly to Sacred Tradition, the Trilingualists’ favourite authority was a gentleman whom few would have included among the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church: none other than Pontius Pilate! After all, had not the Roman procurator himself ordered the words above the crucified Saviour’s head to be written in these three languages, and no other?

Although the Trilingualists of the mid-9th century may have been weak in such fields as logic and Church history, they more than compensated for this by strength in the field of ingrained prejudice against so-called “barbarous” languages and races, and also in the enjoyment of Germanic military backing. Cyril and Methodius had to face enmity and fierce opposition not only from the Trilingualist Archbishop of Salzburg and many other like-minded German clerics, but also from Italian theologians. On their way to Rome in 867 to seek papal vindication of their work, the brothers passed through Venice, only to find that their reputation for using the “unholy” Slavonic language for Scripture and liturgy spread through the serene and affluent city like wildfire. They were summoned before a kind of inquisition of Venetian theologians to justify their ‘shocking’ innovations. Here it was Cyril, especially, who distinguished himself. With the depth of his scholarship in philosophy, linguistics, Scripture and Eastern Church history, he succeeded in silencing the critics. Starting with an appeal to St. Paul’s declaration to the Philippians that “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”,8 and citing the Psalmist’s exclamation, “Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!”,9 ‘Constantine the Philosopher’ turned out to have more biblical references than his adversaries had charges. In the words of John Paul II:

He showed that many peoples had already in the past introduced and now possessed a liturgy written and celebrated in their own language, such as “the Armenians, the Persians, the Abasgians, the Georgians, the Sogdians, the Goths, the Avars, the Tirsians, the Khazars, the Arabs, the Copts, the Syrians and many others.”

Reminding them that God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on all people without exception, he said: “Do not all breathe the air in the same way? And are you not ashamed to decree only three languages, . . . deciding that all other peoples and races should remain blind and deaf! Tell me: do you hold this because you consider God is so weak that he cannot grant it, or so envious that he does not wish it?”10

Cyril’s breadth of vision, shown here in his appreciation of the multiplicity of peoples and cultures making up the Church of Christ, along with his and Methodius’ unvarying appeal to reason, rather than to the power of the ‘secular arm’, prompts the Pope to say: “The characteristic of [their] approach . . . which I especially wish to emphasize is the peaceful way in which they built up the Church, guided as they were by their vision of the Church as one, holy and universal.”11 The very word “ecumenical”, of course, means “universal”, and I believe that the example of the two brothers in this respect remains very relevant today. For in recent decades we have so often seen, in the name of ecumenism, the promotion of a false and harmful pluralism or irenicism in those doctrinal matters wherein unity is essential; while at the same time that genuine, fruitful pluralism of human cultures and of differing Eastern and Western liturgies that the Church has always fostered is all too often neglected, or even opposed. And it seems that such attitudes are still, as in the time of the Trilingualists, often due to narrow ideological prejudices (particularly common among us Catholics), or to equally narrow ethnic or nationalistic prejudices (more common, it seems, among our Eastern Orthodox brethren). I am reminded that Pope Benedict XVI has very recently undertaken to promote this kind of authentic pluralism in the Western Church. For by the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum he has restored a much wider freedom for our priests and faithful to worship according to those ancient Latin rites which even non-Catholics and non-believers have widely recognized as being among the great spiritual and cultural treasures of our civilization. And yet how much fearful and narrow-minded grumbling against the Holy Father’s courageous decision we have heard coming from those very Catholics – including many priests and even bishops – who in other matters are usually outspoken in calling for greater ‘freedom’ and ‘diversity’ in the Church! Providentially, the Feast-Day of Saints Cyril and Methodius in the traditional Roman liturgy is 7 July – the very day chosen by the Holy Father in 2007 to ‘liberate’ that liturgy for much wider use than it has seen for over forty years.

This annual date was chosen and designated by Pope Leo XIII. The occasion was his extension of the Feast of our two Byzantine saints to the universal Latin-rite calendar by means of the encyclical epistle Grande Munus of 30 September 1880. Now, that year is highly relevant to the ecumenical import of Cyril and Methodius’ life’s work. For Leo’s encyclical was issued to mark the thousandth anniversary of the Pontifical Letter Industriae Tuae, with which Pope John VIII drove a heavy nail into the coffin of Trilingualism by formally recognizing and fully approving the use of Old Slavonic in the liturgical rites and biblical books translated by the two brothers. We have already noted the ecumenical significance of such cultural and liturgical diversity in the life of the Church. But the very fact that these two loyal subjects of Constantinople’s Patriarch and Emperor submitted their controversial linguistic initiative to the judgment of two successive Roman Pontiffs – Adrian II and then, more formally, John VIII – is still more telling. For this is a clear example – and many more could be cited – of how first-millennium Eastern Christians, in contrast to our Orthodox brethren in the second and now third millennia, generally accepted the supreme jurisdiction over all the churches – in practice as well as in theory – of the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

An Orthodox Christian might object here that since Great Moravia was at that time recognized as a mission territory under Western canonical jurisdiction, rather than a land subject to Byzantine administrative authority, Cyril and Methodius, in appealing to Rome’s judgment, were recognizing nothing more than the Pope’s authority in his capacity as “Patriarch of the West”, and not any supposed jurisdiction on his part over the universal Church. But the historical evidence indicates that the holy brothers recognized both these areas of papal authority – regional and universal.

First, it is notorious that all the popes for many centuries had been increasingly explicit in claiming universal authority, not just a titular ‘primacy of honour’ over the different Eastern patriarchal sees and their respective subjects. So by the mere fact of failing to protest such a claim, and indeed, by taking the same oath of loyalty to John VIII as this Pope required from Westerners and Easterners alike when they came seeking his judgment in 880, Cyril and Methodius were at least tacitly recognizing the validity of the Pontiff’s claim. Secondly, although Great Moravia as a territory was indeed considered as being primarily under the Pope’s patriarchal, rather than Petrine, jurisdiction, the two brothers themselves, as persons, were not in that category. They remained personally subject to the Eastern patriarch; and yet neither they nor anyone else raised any legal or doctrinal questions when Adrian II exercised his universal primacy, unilaterally appointing and consecrating Methodius as an archbishop without seeking any prior permission from Constantinople. Finally, it must be remembered that in 880, especially, the accusations hurled by the Trilingualist Germans at the veteran champion of Old Slavonic included not only the canonical, disciplinary charge of trespassing with unauthorized novelties into a mission field reserved for Western clergy, but also, and more importantly, the charge of heresy. Their claim was precisely that the liturgical use of any language other than Hebrew, Latin or Greek violated Sacred Tradition: that is, revealed divine law, not just human ecclesiastical law. And in absolving Methodius of this grave doctrinal charge, John VIII was clearly understood by both the holy prelate and the other parties to the dispute to be exercising his universal, Petrine authority. For both sound doctrine and heresy – truth and falsehood – are necessarily the same throughout the universal Church.

Once again, we can listen to Pope John Paul as he summarizes the ecumenical significance of Cyril and Methodius’ apostolic achievements:

Though subjects of the Eastern Empire and believers subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, they considered it their duty to give an account of their missionary work to the Roman Pontiff. They likewise submitted to his judgment, in order to obtain his approval, the doctrine which they professed and taught, the liturgical books which they had written in the Slavonic language, and the methods which they were using in evangelizing those peoples.

Having undertaken their mission under orders from Constantinople, they then in a sense sought to have it confirmed by approaching the Apostolic See of Rome, the visible centre of the Church’s unity. Thus they established the Church with an awareness of her universality as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. This is clearly and explicitly seen in their whole way of acting. . . .

Thus it seems in no way anachronistic to see Saints Cyril and Methodius as the authentic precursors of ecumenism, inasmuch as they wished to eliminate effectively or to reduce any divisions, real or apparent, between the individual communities belonging to the same Church.12

3. Education. The third and last of the ‘three Es’ under which I am grouping the outstanding historical contributions of Cyril and Methodius is ‘education’ in the very broadest sense of the word. Here we are considering the interface between faith and culture: the way in which the brothers’ missionary efforts impacted profoundly the entire future civilization of half a continent – Eastern Europe.

The most immediately evident educational accomplishment of the two missionaries was certainly their bringing of literacy – arguably the foundation of all true civilization – to the Slavic peoples. But their contribution in this respect went far beyond the usual process of teaching people to read and write. For it involved the production of an entire and totally new alphabet. The ‘Cyrillic’ alphabet, used now (with slight local variations) in the Slavic nations with predominantly Eastern Orthodox traditions, was not in fact the one invented by St. Cyril. His was the older ‘Glagolitic’ script (its name derived from the Slavonic word glagol, meaning ‘verb’). While the two alphabets appear very different, the debt of the Cyrillic script to the saint in whose honour it was named is very real, because there is an almost complete correspondence between the sounds represented by the Glagolitic letters and those of the original Cyrillic alphabet. During the year spent in preparation for the journey to Moravia (862-863), Cyril, with the help of Methodius’ greater fluency in spoken Slavonic, deepened his knowledge of that language, and quickly realized that many of its distinctive sounds could never be rendered adequately by their familiar Greek letters. A new and much longer alphabet had to be devised: the Glagolitic script and the original (10th-century) Cyrillic based on it had about 40 letters.13 In the words of the specialist Professor Tachiaos,

Cyril created a proper alphabet that could cope with the whole phonetic range of the Slavonic language. Whereas, as the Bulgar writer Chrabr informs us, the Slavs had previously employed a jumble of scratches and signs, they now acquired a perfect alphabet of their own, which had been designed to reproduce precisely the phonetic peculiarities of their language.14 So deeply did their new alphabet impress the newly evangelized Slavs that their earliest biographies of the brothers present it as a truly divine gift – as having been revealed to Cyril by God. Whatever gifts of grace may in fact have assisted him in this task, our saint known as ‘Constantine the Philosopher’, with his multifaceted genius in so many fields of learning, can in any case be seen as probably the most outstanding first-millennium pioneer in the science of philology: a forerunner of the complex modern disciplines of comparative linguistics and phonetics.

Cyril’s technical linguistic accomplishment in devising a new alphabet, however, is only the beginning of the profound cultural contribution of the Byzantine brothers to Eastern European civilization. For with the alphabet there naturally started to arise a national body of literature in the Slavonic tongue – beginning with the Sacred Scriptures and the Byzantine-rite liturgical texts. Before long, aided by the training which the young Methodius had received in the field of law, legal texts were produced incorporating not only church discipline but also the accumulated wisdom of centuries in which Roman and Hellenic norms for social and political life were being penetrated little by little with Christian principles.

This new Slavic literature in turn expressed a language that itself became immeasurably enriched by new words and concepts. Once again, I will let Professor Tachiaos explain this remarkable accomplishment:

Apart from the alphabet, however, the hardest task facing Cyril’s team was to create a scholarly language for the Slavs, for they did not have one. A people without spiritual cultivation or education naturally lacked abstract concepts too, and it was precisely such concepts that had to be created in the Slavonic tongue. . . . In order to render the Gospel in Slavic, it was neces­s­ary to build up an enormous stock of abstract nouns and adjectives and even compound words, none of which existed in Slavic. These words and concepts came straight out of molds furnished by the rich Greek language, which had been worked on for centuries by scholars and intellectuals. In this way, limitless wealth flowed forth from the treasure-house of the Greek language and was offered to the Slavic world as a permanent, sacred gift. . . . Cyril, then, did not simply create an alphabet, but shaped the Slavic language in such a way as to enable it to assimilate the conceptual wealth of the Greek language; and this was much more important than devising the alphabet. Thus formed, the Slavic language became the basis for the creation of a self-sufficient Slavic learned culture, and it is precisely here that the significance of Cyril and Methodius’ historic work may be found.15

* * * * * * *

Conclusion. My purpose in this afternoon’s talk has simply been that of stimulating a greater awareness of, and hopefully, a greater interest in, the historic work of two great Christian apostles who were also, we can say, great humanists. They were men who peacefully and perseveringly cultivated the foundations of a new Eastern European civilization, while at the same time working and praying ardently for the salvation of souls and striving to maintain harmony and unity between the diverse forms of Christian worship which had developed along different paths in East and West, but then found themselves juxtaposed in an uneasy tension in the Kingdom of Great Moravia. Because of their deep influence and powerful example in all these fields, I believe Sts. Cyril and Methodius represent in a special way the most important values and aims of our Trialogos Festival.

In 1980, marking the 1100th anniversary of his predecessor John VIII’s Bull vindicating against their Trilingualist foes the brothers’ use of the Slavonic tongue in the Sacred Liturgy, Pope John Paul II named them, together with St. Benedict, heavenly Co-Patrons of the European continent, and encapsulated their unifying role with this comment: “Cyril and Methodius, in their ministry as missionaries, were like a sign of the Church’s unity; for they worked in a spirit of harmony with the Church of Constantinople that had sent them, and also with the Roman See of Peter that had confirmed them”.16

I think we may fittingly conclude these observations with a final quotation from the longer Encyclical of this Pontiff – the first Slavic Successor of Peter – which gathers together in a few sentences the different aspects of the holy brothers’ accomplishments that I have grouped together this afternoon under my ‘three Es’:

Rightly therefore Saints Cyril and Methodius were at an early date recognized by the Slav peoples as the fathers of both their Christianity and their culture. In many [Central and East European] territories, . . . although there had been various missionaries, the majority of the Slav population in the ninth century still retained pagan customs and beliefs. Only in the land cultivated by our Saints, or at least prepared by them for cultivation, did Christianity definitively enter the history of the Slavs during the following century. Their work is an outstanding contribution to the formation of the common Christian roots of Europe, roots which by their strength and vitality are one of the most solid points of reference, which no serious attempt to reconstruct in a new and relevant way the unity of the Continent can ignore.17


1 Slavorum Apostoli (SA), 8.

2 Quoted in Anthony-Emil N. Tachiaos, Cyril and Methodius of Thessalonica: the Acculturation of the Slavs (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p. 57, emphasis added. The above consists of citations from the two versions of Rastislav’s letter found in the separate ancient biographies of the brothers, Vita Constantinii (lines 1-3 above) and Vita Methodii (lines 3-6 above) respectively.

3 SA, 9-10.

4 SA, 11.

5 Sister M. Martina Tybor, SS.C.M., Sts. Cyril & Methodius: The Glory of the Slavs­ (Milwaukee: Bruce Press, 1963).

6 For details, cf. the reference to this book in footnote 2 above.

7 Jerry & Faith McCollough, Cyril & Methodius: Illuminators of the Slavs (Asslar-Berghausen, Germany: Eventide Publications, 2001).

8 Phil. 2: 11

9 Ps 117: 1

10 SA, 17. The first of the Pope’s two citations above is from Vita Constantinii, XVI, 8, and the second from XVI, 4-6.

11 SA, 12, emphasis in original.

12 SA, 13-14.

13 Later versions were simplified: the modern Russian/Ukrainian alphabet has 32 letters while Bulgarian has 29.

14 Tachiaos, op. cit., p. 72.

15 Ibid., p. 73.

16Cyrillus autem et Methodius ministerium suum missionale sic egerunt, ut sive cum Ecclesia Constantinopolitana conspirarent, a qua missi essent, sive etiam cum Romana Petri Sede, quae eos confirmavisset, quasi in signum unitatis Ecclesiae . . . ” (Apostolic Epistle Egregiae Virtutis. 31 December 1980, art. 1). The above is the present writer’s translation. (The Vatican has not so far published this document in English.)

17 SA, 25.

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