St. Cyril and St. Methodius

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St. Cyril and St. Methodius

St. Cyril

Born c. 827

Died 869

Byzantine missionary

St. Methodius
Born c. 825
Died 885
Byzantine missionary

I n 863, the brothers Cyril and Methodius went as Christian missionaries to Central Europe. There they found a people ignorant not only of the Christian message, but even of reading and writing. Before they could teach them about Jesus Christ, the two Greek missionaries had to help them develop a written language, and thus was born the Cyrillic alphabet, used today in Russia and other countries. Perhaps even more important, however, was the indirect role played by Cyril and Methodius in spreading Greek Orthodoxy to other lands— most notably Russia.

Constantine and his brother

Although Methodius (mi-THOH-dee-us) was the older of the two brothers, Cyril (SEER-ul) became more famous. Much more is known about Cyril than about his older brother—including the fact that during most of his lifetime, Cyril went by the name of Constantine.

The two boys were born in the city of Thessalonica (thes-uh-luh-NYK-uh), today called Salonika, in Greece. Their hometown was then the second most important city in the Byzantine Empire, the most important being the capital at Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). It was to Constantinople that fourteen-year-old Constantine went in 841, after their father died. In the capital city, the imperial chancellor Theoctistus took Constantine under his wing, and arranged for the gifted young man to study at the imperial court academy.

At the academy, Constantine studied under Photius, one of the most learned men of his time, who was destined to become patriarch of Constantinople. (The patriarch is the leading figure in Greek Orthodox Christianity, much as the pope is for Roman Catholicism.) When Constantine finished his studies, Theoctistus offered him marriage to his daughter, and a powerful position at the court; but Constantine had already made up his mind to follow spiritual pursuits. In 850, he became a professor of philosophy at the imperial academy.

The early activities of Methodius are much less well known. He was living in a monastery in northwestern Asia Minor (now Turkey) in 855, when Constantine joined him, and the two went on living there for eight years. He may also have served as governor in the province where they were born, but other than that, his early life is a mystery.

Apostles to the Slavs

Constantine, or Cyril, and Methodius would become known as "Apostles to the Slavs." An apostle is a figure in the Christian church who is sent out to teach and train others, and the Slavs were a group who populated much of Eastern Europe. In 862, Rostislav, king of Great Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), asked the Byzantine emperor Michael III for a group of missionaries—people who travel to other lands with the aim of converting others to their religion—to come and teach the Slavic Moravians about Christianity. In particular, he asked for Constantine and Methodius, who had become famous for their abilities as scholars.

Rostislav's request had political as well as religious purposes. To his west were Germans who had embraced Roman Catholicism, and had converted the Moravians to Christianity. The fact that the Moravians looked to German priests for

Olga and Vladimir

The Greek Orthodox Church has a set of saints entirely different from those of Roman Catholicism, and among these Orthodox saints are Cyril and Methodius. Two others are Olga (879–969) and Vladimir I (V'LAHD-i-meer; c. 956–1015), both rulers of Russia who were instrumental in bringing Christianity to that country.

Before she embraced Christianity, Olga was an extremely cruel woman who punished the men who murdered her husband, Prince Igor of Kiev, by having them scalded to death. She was baptized in Constantinople in 957, and arranged for missionaries to be sent to Russia; but the Christian faith did not take hold at that time. Thus Vladimir, her grandson, grew up in a world still dominated by the old pagan gods that the Russian people of Kiev had inherited from their Viking ancestors.

In rising to a position of leadership, Vladimir had to do battle with several of his brothers (he had eleven), as well as with rival nations surrounding Kiev. He turned to Christianity not necessarily because he believed in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but because he saw political advantages in embracing the Christian faith. Becoming Christian would give Russia close political ties with the Byzantine Empire, and Vladimir liked the Christian idea of a single, all-powerful God who should never be

questioned—just the way he expected his people to view him.

In the summer of 990, Vladimir commanded the destruction of all pagan idols in Russia, and ordered his people to undergo mass baptisms. He put in place a religious schooling system, and initiated a program of tithes, meaning that the people had to give a certain portion of their money to the church. This became unpopular, and led to a revolt by his son Yaroslav (yuh-ruh-SLAHF). Despite this uprising, which Vladimir was not able to suppress before his death, he had permanently converted Russia to Christianity.

leadership gave the Germans cultural dominance over his people, a dominance Rostislav was determined to break.

The Byzantines in turn saw political advantages to fulfilling Rostislav's request, since it would give them a chance to expand their version of Christianity deep into Europe. For many centuries, two principle branches of the Christian faith—one centered around Rome, the other on Constantinople—had been moving further and further apart. Although at that time the Greek Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church were still united (they would only officially split in 1054), the Byzantine and Orthodox leadership saw an opportunity to establish a strong Central European foothold, and they took it.

The Cyrillic alphabet

Arriving in Moravia, the two brothers set about their first task, which was to develop a written version of the Moravians' Slavonic language. To do this, they needed an alphabet, so they used the letters of the Greek alphabet as a foundation. This would only take them so far, however, because Slavonic had sounds unknown to the Greeks. Therefore Constantine created special symbols to reflect these.

The resulting alphabet is today known as Cyrillic, and is used in Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and other parts of Eastern Europe. Constantine and Methodius made it the basis for a now-dead language called Old Slavonic or Church Slavonic. During the next four years, the brothers busied themselves translating the Greek Orthodox liturgy (that is, the prewritten rites for church services, baptisms, etc.) into Slavonic. Thanks to Constantine and Methodius, the Moravians were able to build a self-sufficient church.

Rome and the end

In the autumn of 867, their mission apparently finished, the two brothers made their way toward Constantinople, bringing with them a group of men who were candidates for the Orthodox priesthood. But as they were leaving, they received an invitation from Pope Nicholas I to visit him in Rome. Therefore they decided to go there, intending to stay just a short time before returning to Constantinople; but in fact the trip took two years, and Cyril would never see Greece again.

Pope Nicholas died while they were on their way to Rome, and the new pope, Adrian II, welcomed them in his place. Seeing an opportunity to exert his own influence in Central Europe, Adrian agreed to ordain, or formally appoint, the prospective priests the brothers brought with them.

Soon afterward, Constantine and Methodius learned that Michael III had been assassinated. This left them uncertain as to how they should proceed, since they might very well return to Constantinople and find themselves in trouble with the new emperor. Constantine, at least, did not have to make a decision: he became ill and, soon after becoming a monk and taking the new name Cyril, he died on February 14, 869. Methodius chose to go back to Moravia, where he continued to work until his own death on April 6, 885.

As it turned out, Moravia would later come under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, and thus of Western European culture. Today the Czechs are predominantly Catholic, and use a Roman alphabet similar to that of English. The Orthodox believers driven out of Moravia spread eastward, to Bulgaria and later Russia—lands where Orthodoxy established a strong and lasting hold—in the late 800s and early 900s.

For More Information


De Grunwald, Constantine. Saints of Russia. New York: Macmillan, 1960.

Dvornik, Francis. The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization. Boston: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1956.

Roberts, J. M. The Illustrated History of the World, Volume 4: The Age of Diverging Traditions. New York: Oxford, 1998.

Sevastiades, Philemon D. I Am Eastern Orthodox. New York: PowerKids Press, 1996.

Web Sites

"Medieval Russia—Religion." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26,2000).

"Orthodox WorldLinks." Theologic Systems. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Russian Orthodox Church (Historical Background)." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

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St. Cyril and St. Methodius

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St. Cyril and St. Methodius