Saints Cyril and Methodius are called the “Apostles to the Slavs” for their roles in the conversion of the Slavic peoples to Christianity. These brothers were from Thessalonika, Greece; which was then within the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. They were born Constantine and Michael, respectively, into an important administrative family, both eventually becoming clergymen. The brothers were both trained as scholars, theologians, and linguists, and they held significant academic and administrative positions within the empire prior to being sent north into Central and Eastern Europe to convert the Slavs.
After being ordained around 850, Cyril was summoned to Constantinople where he was made a professor of philosophy at the Patriarchal School. Cyril was chosen to work in the court of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil because of his competence in Arabic and Hebrew and his grasp of theology. He discussed the doctrine of the Trinity with Muslim scholars and theologians in an attempt to improve relations between the Caliphate and the Byzantine Empire. This was part of the greater interfaith dialogue of which Cyril and his brother Methodius was a part. He involved himself in the communication between Christians, Muslims, and Jews; though he was particularly anti-Jewish in his writings.
In 860, the brothers were sent by the Emperor Michael III to the Khaganate of the Khazars, in what is today the Ukraine. The work began in Taurica, modern Crimea, where Cyril had learned the language of the Khazars. Their mission was an attempt to prevent the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism, possibly contributing to Cyril’s later anti-Jewish sentiments. Though they failed at this task, they continued on similar work of conversion and teaching for most of the remainder of their lives.
Cyril continued his work as a professor at the university for a few years, and Methodius worked as an imperial administrator and political figure, as well as being abbot of a monastery. In 862, the brothers were again summoned by the Emperor to go on a foreign mission. This time, Prince Rastislav of Moravia had requested that the Emperor and Patriarch Photius send missionaries to evangelize his Slavic people.
Rastislav had gained his domain with the help of the Frankish king Louis the German, and as a way of asserting his independence from the Franks, he expelled the Roman missionaries from his lands. By requesting assistance from the eastern church and the Emperor, Rastislav was repositioning his allegiances to the east rather than to the Pope and the German Franks. Cyril and Methodius were dispatched as a way of extending Byzantine influence north into Slavic lands. In Moravia, the brothers worked to train assistants and translate the Bible and other religious texts into Old Church Slavonic, the first literary language of the Slavic group.
In order to properly write in the Slavic language, Cyril and Methodius were forced to shift away from the Greek alphabet, which failed to fully communicate the intricacies of Slavic phonetics. For this purpose they invented the Glagolitic alphabet which drew from the Greek, Hebrew, Samaritan, and even Coptic alphabets with which Cyril was familiar from his studies and travels. The influence of Hebrew and Samaritan from his time in the Khazar Khaganate is evident throughout. Church Slavonic, though antiquated, is still used in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic liturgies of the Slavs today. The modern Cyrillic alphabet, which is currently used across Eurasia, was developed by disciples of Cyril and Methodius after their deaths and named in Cyril’s honor.
Along with their translations of the Bible, the brothers formulated the first Slavic civil law and Slavic liturgy. It is uncertain whether the liturgy was more Roman or Greek in style, but it is clear that there was influence from both Churches over their methods. The brothers were called to Rome in 867 by Pope Nicholas I where the German Archbishop of Salzburg disputed the use of the Slavic liturgy in Moravia, where he wished to see the Latin liturgy of the German missionaries used. The brothers, however, were well received in Rome, in part due to the presence of a relic of Saint Clement among their party of disciples. The brothers were widely respected, even in the west, and Pope Adrian II eventually allowed the continued use of the Slavic liturgy in Moravia.
Cyril died in Rome in February 869, just fifty days after entering the Monastic life and taking the name Cyril, up until then still being called Constantine; thought Cyril may actually be a name given to him only after his death. Because of the respect he had garnered among both Eastern and Western leaders and clergy, his body was treated with the utmost respect and he received a funeral almost as large as if the Pope himself had died. He is buried in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome.
Methodius continued his work among the Slavs, this time in the province of Pannonia in the Balkans, due to the fact that Rastislav had been condemned at an imperial diet in 870. This brought him into conflict with the Archbishop of Salzburg who had traditionally claimed authority of Pannonia. Pope Adrian II again overruled the Archbishop of Salzburg and elevated Methodius to the position of Archbishop, granting him jurisdiction over Moravia and Pannonia.
Methodius was eventually called to trial in Regensburg for his actions against the Germans, and he was imprisoned there for two years, despite his support from the Pope. Roman authority eventually saw him freed, though his jurisdiction over Pannonia was restricted by German nobles and the rights of the Slavic liturgy were canceled in Moravia. By this time, however, Prince Sviatopulk of Moravia had taken control there and expelled the German clergy, continuing the efforts of Cyril and Methodius in his realm, independent of German influence.
Methodius died in 885, and the disciples of Cyril and Methodius were expelled from Moravia by Germans that same year. Conflict over Methodius’ ecclesiastical seat would continue to broil, only being exacerbated by the unfolding of the controversies which would lead to the Great East-West Schism in 1054. The brothers’ disciples fled to the Bulgarian Empire where they were allowed to establish theological schools. There they would eventually formulate the Cyrillic script used today which would replace Glagolitic as the script of choice for Orthodox Slavs. The influence of these saints on learning in Eastern Europe cannot be understated. They gave the people there the gift of a quality written language, one which has been used as far west as the Balkans and as far East as Siberia for over 1000 years.
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