On Cyril and Methodius

«Each People Should … Express the Salvific Truth With Their Own Language»

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 17, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square, part of a catechetical series he is giving about great writers of the Church in the Middle Ages.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

Today, I would like to speak about Sts. Cyril and Methodius, brothers of the same parents and in the faith, known as the apostles to the Slavic people. Cyril was born in Thessalonica, son of the imperial magistrate Leon, in 826-827. He was the youngest of seven children. As a child, he learned the Slavic language. At age 14, he was sent to Constantinople to be educated and was accompanied by the young emperor, Michael III. During those years, he was introduced into the various university disciplines, among others, dialectics, and had Photius as his teacher. After having rejected a brilliant matrimony, he decided to receive holy orders and became the librarian in the patriarchate. Shortly afterward, wanting to retreat from society, he hid himself in a monastery, but soon was discovered and entrusted with teaching sacred and profane sciences, a task that he fulfilled so well that he won the title of «philosopher.»

Meanwhile, the brother Michael (born around the year 815), after a career in public administration in Macedonia, abandoned the world around the year 850 to retreat to monastic life on Mount Olympus, in Bithynia, where he received the name Methodius (the monastic name had to begin with the same letter as the baptismal name) and became the hegumen of the monastery of Polychron.

Attracted by the example of his brother, Cyril also decided to leave teaching to dedicate himself to meditation and prayer on Mount Olympus. However, years later (around 861), the imperial government entrusted him with a mission among the Khazars of the Azov Sea, who had asked to have sent to them a scholar who would know how to debate with the Jews and the Saracens. Cyril, accompanied by his brother Methodius, lived for a long time in Crimea, where he learned Hebrew.

There, he also looked for the body of Pope Clement I, which had been buried in that location. He found his tomb and when he returned with his brother, he brought the precious relics. Upon arriving in Constantinople, the two brothers were sent by Emperor Michael III to Moravia; the prince of Moravia, Ratislav, had made a precise petition [to the emperor]: «Our nation,» he said, «since it has rejected paganism, observes Christian law. But we do not have a teacher that is capable of explaining to us the true faith in our language.» The mission very promptly had uncommon success. In translating the liturgy to the Slavic language, the two brothers won great affection among the people.

This, however, stirred up hostility against them among the Frankish clergy, who had previously arrived to Moravia and considered the territory as belonging to their ecclesial jurisdiction. To justify themselves, in the year 867, the two brothers traveled to Rome. During the trip, they stopped in Venice, where there was a heated discussion with those who defended the so-called trilingual heresy: These considered that there were only three languages in which God could be licitly praised — Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Obviously, the two brothers opposed this with determination.

In Rome, Cyril and Methodius were received by Pope Adrian II, who went out to meet them in procession to worthily receive the relics of St. Clement. The Pope had also understood the great importance of their exceptional mission. From the middle of the first millennium, in fact, the Slavic people had established themselves in great numbers in those territories situated between the two parts of the Roman Empire — the East, and the West, which experienced tension between themselves. The Pope intuited that the Slavic peoples could carry out the role of bridge, contributing in this way to conserve unity between the Christians of both parts of the Empire. Therefore, he did not hesitate in approving the mission of the two brothers in the Great Moravia, welcoming and approving the use of Slavic in the liturgy. The Slavic books were placed on the altar of Santa Maria di Phatmé (St. Mary Major) and the Slavic liturgy was celebrated in the basilicas of St. Peter, St. Andrew and St. Paul.

Unfortunately, in Rome, Cyril became gravely ill. Sensing that death was approaching, he wanted to consecrate himself totally to God as a monk in one of the Greek monasteries of the city (probably in St. Praxedes) and he took the monastic name Cyril (his baptismal name was Constantine). Later, he insistently beseeched his brother Methodius, who had meanwhile been consecrated a bishop, that he would not abandon the mission in Moravia and that he would return to those peoples. He directed this invocation to God: «Lord, my God … hear my prayer and maintain faithful to you the flock that you have placed before me. Free them from the heresy of the three languages, gather all of them in unity, and make this people that you have chosen live in harmony in the true faith and upright confession.» He died Feb. 14, 869.

Faithful to the commitment taken on with his brother, the next year, 870, Methodius returned to Moravia and Pannonia (today, Hungary), where he again faced the violent ill-will of the Frankish missionaries who imprisoned him. He did not get discouraged and when, in the year 873, he was liberated, he actively dedicated himself to the organization of the Church, attending to the formation of a group of disciples. The merit of these disciples was in overcoming the crisis that broke out after the death of Methodius, which occurred April 6, 885. Persecuted and imprisoned, some of these disciples were sold as slaves and taken to Venice, where they were rescued by a functionary from Constantinople, who permitted them to return to the Balkan Slavic countries.

Welcomed in Bulgaria, they were able to continue the mission began by Methodius, spreading the Gospel in the «land of the Rus.» God, in his mysterious providence, in this way availed of the persecution to save the work of the holy brothers. From [this work], literary documentation also remains. It is enough to think of works such as the «Evangeliario,» (liturgical pericopes of the New Testament) [and] the «Salterio,» various liturgical texts in Slavic, on which the two brothers worked. After the death of Cyril, it is owed to Methodius and to his disciples, among other things, the translation of all of sacred Scripture, the «Nomocanon» and the «Book of the Fathers.»

Briefly summarizing the spiritual profile of the two brothers, above all it must be noted the passion with which Cyril approached the writings of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, learning from him the value of language in the transmission of Revelation. St. Gregory had expressed the desire that Christ would speak through him: «I am a servant of the Word, for this I place myself at the service of the Word.» Wanting to imitate Gregory in this service, Cyril asked Christ to speak in Slavic through him. He introduces his work of translation with the solemn invocation: «Hear, Slavic peoples, hear the Word that proceeds from God, the Word that encourages souls, the Word that leads to the knowledge of God.»

Actually, already years before the prince of Moravia asked Emperor Michael III to send missionaries to his land, it seems that Cyril and his brother Methodius, surrounded by a group of disciples, were working on a project of collecting the Christian dogmas in books written in Slavic. Then it was clearly seen that there was a need to have new graphic signs that were more adequate for the spoken language: Thus was born the Glagolitic alphabet, which modified later, was designated with the name «Cyrillic,» in honor of its inspirer.

This was a decisive factor for the development of the Slavic civilization in general. Cyril and Methodius were convinced that the various peoples could not consider that they had fully received Revelation until t
hey had heard it in their own language and read it with the characters proper to their own alphabet.

To Methodius falls the merit of ensuring that the work began by his brother would not remain sharply interrupted. While Cyril, the «philosopher,» tended toward contemplation, he [Methodius] was directed more toward the active life. In this way, he was able to establish the foundations of the successive affirmation of what we could call the «Cyril-Methodian idea,» which accompanied the Slavic peoples in the various historical periods, favoring cultural, national and religious development. Pope Pius XI already recognized this with the apostolic letter «Quod Sanctum Cyrillum,» in which he classified the two brothers as «sons of the East, Byzantines by their homeland, Greeks by origin, Romans by their mission, Slavs by their apostolic fruits» (AAS 19 [1927] 93-96). The historic role that they fulfilled was afterward officially proclaimed by Pope John Paul II who, with the apostolic letter «Egregiae Virtutis Viri,» declared them co-patrons of Europe, together with St. Benedict (AAS 73 [1981] 258-262).

Indeed, Cyril and Methodius are a classic example of what is today referred to with the term «inculturation»: Each people should make the revealed message penetrate into their own culture, and express the salvific truth with their own language. This implies a very exacting work of «translation,» as it requires finding adequate terms to propose anew the richness of the revealed Word, without betraying it. The two brother saints have left in this sense a particularly significant testimony that the Church continues looking at today to be inspired and guided.

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted the people in various languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

As we continue our catechesis on the early Christian writers of the East and the West, we now turn to the brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius. They were born in Thessalonica in the early ninth century. Cyril, whose baptismal name was Constantine, was educated at the Byzantine Court, ordained a priest, and became an acclaimed teacher of sacred and profane sciences. When his brother Michael became a monk, taking the name of Methodius, Cyril also decided to embrace the monastic life. Having retrieved the relics of Pope Clement I during a mission in Crimea, the brothers successfully preached Christianity to the people of Moravia. Inventing an alphabet for the Slavonic language, they together with their disciples translated the Liturgy, the Bible and texts of the Fathers, shaping the culture of the Slav peoples and leaving an outstanding example of inculturation. Pope Adrian II received them in Rome and encouraged their missionary work. When Cyril died in Rome in 869, Methodius continued the mission in spite of persecution. After his death in 885, some of his disciples, providentially released from slavery, spread the Gospel in Bulgaria and in «the Land of the Rus». In recognition of the brothers’ vast influence, they were named Co-Patrons of Europe by Pope John Paul II. May we imitate their strong faith and their Christian wisdom as we bear witness to the Gospel in our daily lives!

I offer a warm welcome to the participants in the 2009 Church Music Festival. I greet the pilgrims from the parishes of Sacred Heart, Dontozidon, Ilapayan and Tuaran from the Archdiocese of Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, accompanied by Archbishop John Lee, and also the pilgrims from Saint Francis Parish, Singapore. I am also pleased to greet the many student groups, and all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors.

I extend my greetings to the various religious leaders present today who have gathered in Rome for an International Conference of interreligious dialogue. I commend this initiative organized by the Italian Bishops’ Conference in collaboration with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I am confident that it will do much to draw the attention of world political leaders to the importance of religions within the social fabric of every society and to the grave duty to ensure that their deliberations and policies support and uphold the common good. Upon all those taking part I invoke an abundance of the Almighty’s blessings.

© Copyright 2009 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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