Most of us are aware that the majority of Slavic countries have their own alphabet and are followers of the Orthodox faith. But few know the history behind their connection, let alone their troubled past.
The pioneers of the work that led to these events had a troubled journey, one that would elevate them to the title of Saints right after their death. Those are the brothers St. Cyril and Methodius.
The Mission To The Slavs
The brothers Cyril and Methodius were born in the ancient city of Thessalonica, located in modern-day Greece. Cyril was born in about 827–828 and Methodius in about 815–820.
There is much debate about whether the brothers were ethnically Slavs, Byzantine Greeks, or a mix of the two. But in reality, that has little importance in relation to the work the two would dedicate their lives to.
At the request of Prince Rastislav, in the year 862, Cyril and Methodius were sent to Great Moravia. The goal of the Prince was to evangelize his kingdom. At the time, the brothers were living in Constantinople, where Cyril was a professor of philosophy and Methodius, a successful politician and public administrator.
In 863, the brothers started the translations of the Gospels and other liturgic texts from the Bible into what is today known as Old Church Slavonic, a language still used today in liturgy by several Orthodox Churches. There was a problem with this language, though: it was a bit complicated for common people to read. It simply did not match their native speech completely.
The Glagolitic and Cyrillic Alphabets
To fix the language issue, Cyril and Methodius created a new alphabet inspired by Greek and Roman ones, the Glagolitic. This irritated the Germanic priests who were currently operating in Moravia, as they saw this as a threat to their Latin-based liturgy and faith.
In order to avoid conflict, the brothers decided to travel to Rome and personally discuss the situation with the Pope. They arrived in 868, where they were warmly welcomed, partly because they brought with them the holy relics of St. Clement. Yes, they knew their politics.
Pope Adrian II gave Methodius the title of Archbishop of Sirmium (modern-day Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia), with jurisdiction over the whole Moravia and Pannonia, and proper authorization to use the Slavonic liturgy.
To help him with his task, five of his Slavic disciples were ordained as priests (Saint Gorazd, Saint Clement of Ohrid and Saint Naum) and as deacons (Saint Angelar and Saint Sava). To this day, Cyril and Methodius together with the five disciples are worshiped as saints by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.
After the death of the brothers, their disciples were kicked out of Moravia by the German clergy and sought refuge in the First Bulgarian Empire. After arriving in Pliska, the capital of the Empire, Tsar Boris I warmly welcomed and commissioned them to teach the Bulgarian clergy in the Slavonic languages.
In a span of seven years, Clement (the leader of the disciples) taught over 3.500 students in the Slavonic language and the Glagolitic alphabet. Some of these students would later become teachers and found the Preslav Literary School, commissioned by Tsar Simeon I, Tsar Boris’ son, who sought to follow his father’s footsteps. In this school, the Cyrillic alphabet was later created by followers of the brothers, and it’s expansion saw the Slavic world turn into a Cyrillic world.
Cyril & Methodius Today
The brothers Cyril and Methodius were already worshiped by some while they were still alive. After their passing, their names became even holier among Slavs. Many Slavic countries today have special days to remember and celebrate their work and effort:
- Bulgaria (May 24th):
Bulgarian Education and Culture, and Slavonic Script Day.
- North Macedonia (May 24th):
Saints Cyril and Methodius, Slavonic Enlighteners’ Day.
- Czech Republic & Slovakia (July 5th):
Slavic Missionaries Cyril and Methodius Day & St. Cyril and Metod Day.
- Russia (May 24th):
Slavonic Literature and Culture Day.
Apart from the commemoration dates, many buildings and monuments were erected to the honor of the missionary brothers. The picture above shows the Cyril and Methodius National Library in Sofia, Bulgaria.