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Friday, February 14, 2020

Taking a Cue From Saints Cyril and Methodius on Language and Union

Today, February 14, has traditionally been the feast of Saint Valentine in the Latin church. However in the newer calendar for the Latin rite, it is the feast of the apostles to the Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius. In the byzantine calendar, this feast concentrates only on the death of Saint Cyril, as the 2 brother saints have their own feast day together in July.

First, let me start with a (seemingly) controversial statement: the Latin church has throughout history, at times, has played a part in stifling reunion with the eastern churches. The story of Saints Cyril and Methodius can help illustrate this fact.

To make a summary if you have never heard their life story, Saints Cyril and Methodius were originally of the city of Constantinople. In 862, Prince Rastislav of Moravia petitioned the byzantine emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople to send missionaries to Moravia after not being satisfied with efforts of Latin missionaries in the area. Saints Cyril and Methodius were chosen for this endeavor. As part of their efforts, Cyril devised a written alphabet, the Glagolithic alphabet (which would later develop into the Cyrillic alphabet), in order to have a written script for the sounds of the Slavic language and translated the bible into Old Slavonic so that the people they would be ministering to could have scripture in their own language. Their efforts turned out to be very successful among the people, much to the chagrin of Frankish missionaries that were encountered around the area. The Frankish clergy did not like the brothers' efforts one bit, as they insisted absolute uniformity with the Latin language and the Roman Mass and saw the two brothers as encroaching onto their territory.

Eventually, Pope Nicholas I got word of their missionary efforts and the conflicts and invited Cyril and Methodius to come to Rome to meet with him. The two took him up on his offer and traveled to Rome. By the time they got to Rome, Pope Nicholas I had died and his successor, Pope Adrian II welcomed them with open arms when they arrived in Rome, being pleased with the success of their missionary efforts with the Slavs. As part of this, he gave his full blessing for the Divine Liturgy to be said in Old Slavonic instead of Latin and ordained the 2 brothers and 3 students of theirs as priests. 2 other students of theirs were also ordained to the diaconate. Later, before leaving Rome, the plan was for the 2 brothers to also be consecrated as bishops. Unfortunately, Cyril would die in Rome and only Methodius was consecrated a bishop and sent back to continue his work.

Coming back, he did not return to Moravia due to politics at the time, but went to Pannonia, a part of the region over which he had episcopal authority. The Franks still did not like Methodius or his (legitimate) claims to the authority of an archbishop. As a result, they captured Methodius and held him captive in a monastery in Germany for 2 and a half years. After getting word of this, Pope John VIII ordered that Methodius should be released and the Frankish bishops who set him up should be punished (but the pope asked Methodius should stop using Slavonic in the liturgy). After being freed, Methodius went back to Moravia where he had many years of no disturbance since Rastislav's nephew was ruling now and had expelled the Latin church clergy from the area. However, the Frankish clergy eventually made their way back to Moravia and accused Methodius of heresy and using Slavonic instead of Latin. Methodius was summoned to Rome for these charges which he successfully defended himself against and reaffirmed his commitment to orthodoxy. There, the pope (convinced by his defense) gave him full permission (again) to use Slavonic and sent him back again.
Unfortunately, upon the death of Methodius, things got much worse. The successor Methodius had chosen to replace him was not recognized by the new pope, Pope Stephen V. The successor that was chosen instead forbade the use of Slavonic in the liturgy (after the directive of Pope Stephen) and forced the students and followers of Methodius into exile. Many of those ended up in Bulgaria where they organized the church there.

What can this story teach us? First, the vernacular is not evil (despite what some radtrads might tell you). Every liturgical language used for the Divine Liturgy or the Mass was the vernacular at some point in time. If a language has developed enough where it is capable of being raised to the level of the sacred, there is no reason why it could not theoretically be used in the Divine Liturgy or Mass. Also, trying to trying to force uniformity in language where more fruit is produced by use of the vernacular than with this other lanuage is not good. The vernacular is good, but we should also know how to worship in the liturgical language of our respective churches as well (being able to work with both is the goal, but whichever you use more is up to the compentant authority).

Second, unity does not mean (absolute) uniformity. Both the eastern and western churches both profess the same faith, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith handed down to us from Jesus Christ by his 12 apostles and their successors. How we express that faith may differ between particular churches, but it is still the same faith. Just because one church expresses the faith differently from yours does not make it wrong or inferior to the way your church expresses it. If the Frankish bishops and priests (and later the popes after Pope John VIII too) had seen the good that the efforts of Saints Cyril and Methodius had wrought and just left them be instead of having a nutty over what they were doing was not done the exact way they expected it to be, we might have had even more fruit produced than what we saw after the deaths of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

On another look on perhaps the same ideas, I was reading about the history of the Russian Greek Catholic Church. The church started after a Russian Orthodox priest and a few others made the conscious decision to enter communion with Rome. In 1917, the Russian Catholics got their own exarchate and Saint Leonid Feodorov was chosen to be the bishop to lead it. In the 1920s, Saint Leonid managed to get a meeting with the patriarch of Moscow, Patriarch Tikhon, to discuss union of the Russian Orthodox Church with Rome. During the meeting, the patriarch said he was open to union, but was weary of efforts of Latin clergy (mainly the Polish, but there were others too) to go sheep snatching to make the people Roman Catholic. Saint Leonid tried to stop the latins from taking advantage of the political situation in the Russian church and causing too much trouble to ruin his attempts at producing union, but alas, he was mostly ignored and union was never realized (the arrest of the patriarch by the Soviet police did not help with union either). If we would have given it the time it deserved and let talks of union happen naturally rather than having overly ambitious Latin clergy go proselytizing from the start, we might have had union between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church today. I got most of my source on the Russian church from this link ( It is a definite must read for anyone, but especially for Roman Catholics (who may not know much about the east).

Saints Cyril and Methodius have certainly played a great part in bringing Christianity to the Slavic peoples. Most of the Slavic churches today use a language that even bears his namesake, the Cyrillic alphabet. Saints Cyril and Methodius, pray for us!

Comments are very much welcome below. I would very much like to see your thoughts on this issue.


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